FORTUNE — Ask your five-year-old what she thinks of your new haircut, and she won’t hesitate to tell you it looks funny. But your fifth-grader? He’s more likely to tell his best friend about his dad’s dorky new ‘do than be honest with you.
Unfortunately, being “polite” rather than candid isn’t just a grade school phase. In my experience as a consultant, a lack of candor is as common in the conference room as it is in the classroom.
I’m not alone. In Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, James O’Toole, and Patricia Ward Biederman explore the bottom-line consequences for businesses when employees don’t disclose important information to managers.
“No matter the official line, true transparency is rare,” write the authors. “Many organizations pay lip service to values of openness and candor, even writing their commitment into mission statements. Too often these are hollow … [and] followers are all too aware of a very different organizational reality.”
Most of us are wary of opening up, even to close friends, never mind to colleagues during staff meetings. We view vulnerability as a weakness and often keep our opinions to ourselves, fearful of having them rejected, or worse. Yet failing to be up front and straightforward can have huge consequences.
A seminal study of aeronautic safety illustrates this point well. In the 1970s, NASA researchers conducted a wide range of studies aimed at improving air flight safety. In one behavioral study, cockpit crews made up of a pilot, copilot, and navigator participated in flight simulations in which a potential crash situation occurred. The study found that pilots who acted swiftly and decisively based on gut feelings were much more likely to crash the plane than pilots who turned to other crew members for their reading of the situation before deciding how to respond.
Examining the research more closely, social psychologists Robert Blake and Jane Mouton found that what affected the crew members’ response most wasn’t whether the pilot asked for others’ opinions during the crash simulations, but whether they had a history of open exchanges with the pilot. Crewmembers voiced their opinions to pilots who had habitually solicited their input.
Blind trust doesn’t come naturally to any species. Iguanas sleep with one eye open and half their brains “on,” looking out for predators. All reptiles do. Ducks sleeping in a row on a log do it too — the ones on the outer edges keep the outer eye open to spot movement that could signify a threat. So do marine mammals. It’s called unihemispheric sleep because one of the brain’s hemispheres stays active. Only terrestrial mammals feel safe enough to close both eyes and let Morpheus take over.
That sense of safety doesn’t extend to the conference room. Without meaning to, managers often set the tone for disingenuous communication, by failing to establish trust. A telling sign that you may be such a manager is if your employees say they think staff meetings are unproductive or a waste of time. The problem could be that your meetings focus on trivial items better communicated via e-mail. When that’s the case, the real discussion — about difficult topics — isn’t happening.
I see this all the time with clients. A senior executive at a large manufacturing company summarized the communication problems on his team this way:
“People aren’t asked, in a sort of community atmosphere, ‘What else can we do?’ Instead, everyone points the finger at another group. When tough subjects come up, you have to be able to discuss them and not get defensive. That’s not what happens on this team. People get defensive, and everybody shuts down.”
Despite his insight, he (and many others) are at a loss when it comes to fixing these problems. Below are some techniques I recommend to establish the trust needed for open communication.
Admit your mistakes
I can think of few things that send a stronger signal to employees than acknowledging that you screwed up. It gives everyone else permission to own up to their mistakes.
Invite employees to ask tough questions
During staff meetings, invite people to ask questions about things that aren’t being talked about — the elephants in the room. Show them you are willing to give candid answers without getting defensive. If everyone remains silent, ask staff to jot questions down anonymously on a piece of paper and hand it in, then answer each of them in turn.
Appoint a “Yoda”
Choose someone each week to chime in at key points with observations about what’s not being said (but is on everybody’s mind).
Model giving critical feedback
This is difficult to do well. I’m still working on it myself. The key is to de-personalize it. Focus on the problem, not the person. For example, if you are reviewing a short presentation for a client, instead of saying, “I don’t think you did enough research,” say, “It would be more convincing if there was more research supporting your point of view.” After all, you don’t know how much research the employee did. You only know how much they included.
Take a genuine interest in others
Instead of starting meetings with the first agenda item, spend a few minutes on a “personal-professional check-in” with your employees about how things are going with them.
Trust is the foundation for honest communication. Leaders who fail to establish it risk creating a culture in which employees stick to telling the boss what he or she wants to hear, even when doing so may mean ignoring realities that could threaten a company’s survival.