Pixar on Candor

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When a leader does not give honest feedback, who are they hurting? I say they are hurting everyone – the employee, co-workers, the product, customers, and ultimately the future of the organization. Pixar does not just make great movies; they have solved this feedback conundrum.

Pixar Animation Studios is one of the most successful movie studios in the world. They are behind such hits as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc. and Frozen. To achieve this success, they have relied on a culture of candor, where honesty is valued above being polite.

According to Edwin Catmull, the President of Pixar and author of Creativity, Inc.,

Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck…We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve sat through a meeting listening to a horrible idea. You’re busy, as is everyone else in that meeting. Someone has to stop the pain…and that someone is you. Your provocation can be sugarcoated, but whoever’s presenting will just make the same mistake again. The other option is to be honest.

Candor is not brutal honesty. Whereas the former can be malicious, candor is delivered in a respectful, constructive manner. It’s not a personal attack; it is an attempt to make something better.

At Pixar, we try to create an environment where people want to hear each other’s notes (even when those notes are challenging)…

An environment where candor is welcome starts with the leader. You set the tone. If someone offers honest feedback and you shut them down, no one else will be willing to speak up. And, when you give feedback, you must avoid making fun of ideas or belittling choices that you would not have made. Creativity demands openness and vulnerability. This is not possible if you propagate a “my way or the highway” approach.

Put ego aside and listen to those around you. Let them help you. You’re the leader, not the all-knowing. Rely on the expertise of the people you hired to be experts. As Catmull said,

Believe me, you don’t want to be at a company where there is more candor in the hallways than in the rooms where fundamental ideas or policy are being hashed out. The best inoculation against this fate? Seek out people who are willing to level with you, and when you find them, hold them close.

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