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Outlier’s Path

Candor, Curiosity, and Contrarians

So many organizations tout their culture of transparency. The evidence usually comes top-down, with the executives expressing how much they share with their employees. The pushback from employees is that only good news is shared, but bad news is rarely discussed. For true transparency, relevant information should flow up, down, and around, whether good, bad, or indifferent.

To assess whether your organization has a transparent culture, ask whether bad news travels faster than good news. When things are on track, you don’t need to worry about it, but if things are slipping off the tracks, you want to know as quickly as possible to address it. As Napoleon Bonaparte would say, “Never awake me when you have good news to announce, because with good news nothing presses; but when you have bad news, arouse me immediately, for then there is not an instant to be lost.” If you want this level of transparency, reward candor, curiosity, and contrarians.

Candor is about speaking the truth and speaking truth to power, not merely knowing the truth. Knowing the truth is worth little if you don’t speak up and dissent. We all know the term “don’t shoot the messenger,” but a far better practice is “the only messenger I would ever shoot is one who arrived too late.”

Gary Klein is a psychologist and an expert on decision-making. Through his work studying nuclear power plants, he discovered that zero tolerance for errors made plants less safe. People close up and deflect mistakes rather than openly and candidly discuss the error. He observed curiosity worked better to get to the ground truth. Curiosity comes by asking open-ended questions in a non-defensive way. What happened? What could we have done better? How could we respond better in the future? Curiosity also unlocks creativity. With creative solutions, you are more likely to prevent future errors.

The larger a team or an organization, the more likely the group will fall into groupthink and fail to question their assumptions. When this happens, it is more critical to have contrarians who question popular narratives, challenge commonly accepted beliefs, seek disconfirming information, and look for alternative viewpoints and perspectives. Of course, contrarians are not always right, but they are the few who will test our assumptions and convictions, so it is always good to hear them out.

What role will you play in ensuring bad news travels faster than good news in your organization?