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Ella Overshott

Pecan Partnership

Director

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Three steps to nurturing straight-talking managers

Is hybrid really the reason some teams are struggling with productivity and performance? Or is this a distraction from a time-old problem of poor management?
person showing black and white compass, depicting straight-talking manager

What do we mean by straight-talking? My favourite straight-talking framework is Radical Candor introduced by former Apple and Google Executive Kim Scott. This philosophy balances ‘Caring Personally’ with ‘Challenging Directly’, so using both kindness and honesty to say what needs to be said.

This skill is especially relevant in today’s context where wellbeing and mental health have been brought into sharper focus, and rightly so, but which can also create a hesitancy in managers to hold people to account and have difficult conversations. 

Straight-talking is also about giving praise and recognition effectively – unspecific, insincere praise is possibly worse than none at all. In particular, with teams spending a lot of their time working remotely from each other, it can be hard to know ‘what good looks like’. When team members are new into a role or as organisations initiate and embed change, catching people ‘getting it right’ and encouraging more of what’s working is essential to driving high performance. 

Inconsistent leadership is one of the features we see all the time.

Why do we need straight-talking managers?

Since long before our working lives were transformed by the pandemic, we have known the components of a high-performing team. Whether you use Katzenbach and Smith, Patrick Lencioni or another framework, the traits required include a common purpose, a high level of trust and commitment to each other and the team’s success.

Straight-talking is essential to create these conditions in order to, for example:

  • Correct mis-interpretations of what needs to be achieved
  • Say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to activities that aren’t the biggest priority
  • Create safe spaces where their team members can straight-talk with them
  • Have frank two-way conversations about performance and what’s getting in the way 
  • Be open about their own feelings, fears or uncertainties when needed

How to nurture straight-talking managers

The key is role modelling from the top, consistently and explicitly. Inconsistent leadership is one of the features we see all the time in cultures that aren’t maximising their potential. One director may have a fantastic leadership style creating high engagement, high productivity, efficiency and performance, but look across to others in the executive team and it’s often patchy.

Here are three steps that every executive, or any other leader, can do to nurture managers who can straight-talk confidently with their teams, with each other and with their leaders.  

1. Get to know people

    James Timpson, CEO of Timpsons, which is renowned for its employee-centred culture, was recently interviewed on the BBC explaining why he thinks kindness is at the heart of a high performing culture.

    One of the foundations of the company’s approach is getting to know people as human beings as he believes that when performance dips, it’s usually due to problems away from work.

    In Timpson all Area Managers are tested annually on how well they know people in their teams, with random questions about hobbies, their family, football team or latest holidays. This isn’t a gimmick but an imperative to understand the context from which people are coming to work and building trust so that open and honest conversations can be had more easily.

    2. Develop the skills

      Giving feedback or saying what needs to be said is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. Even seasoned leaders can benefit from this. Good Energy who has recently entered the Top 25 Companies to Work For, trains everyone in straight-talking whatever their role. This sets the expectation that it’s ‘how we do things around here’ and keeps the skill fresh.

      Good straight-talking training needs to include work on underlying beliefs and relationship dynamics as well as the practical framework to structure what needs to be said. Again, this is as much about giving constructive, motivating praise as it is about having difficult conversations.

      There is huge untapped potential in workplace cultures to unlock ambition, ideas, energy and motivation.

      3. Give HR support

      In some more tricky workplace cultures, one of the barriers to straight-talking is managers’ fear that if they challenge an employee, it may result in a complaint being submitted to HR. Of course, these are sometimes justified – straight-talking should never be used to mask bullying or discrimination in any way. But well-intended managers should know that they can straight-talk with the support of their HR policies and practices.

      It can be an uncomfortable step to tackle someone’s poor performance if it hasn’t been done before and managers need to feel fully supported by their colleagues.  Training managers to be skilled and confident in straight-talking will actually reduce the risk of employees making complaints or grievances.

      Start with straight-talking

      There is huge untapped potential in workplace cultures to unlock ambition, ideas, energy and motivation. HRZone’s State of Workplace Culture research found that 68% of managers want to take a more active role in cultivating a positive workplace culture but don’t know the best place to start. Nurturing managers to straight talk is a prudent investment in time and resources that will pay dividends. 

      Interested in this topic? Read ‘Managers, it’s time to do your job’.

      Author Profile Picture
      Ella Overshott

      Director

      Read more from Ella Overshott
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