If you’ve ever had a boss who was more worried about protecting their position and avoiding all risk than in supporting new ideas or forging new ground, you’ll know how demoralizing it can be.
Most of us have had a boss at some point in our career whose fear rubbed off on those around them. The kind who was far more preoccupied with protecting their pride, power or position than with empowering their team, improving old processes or experimenting with fresh ideas. A boss much like the first one I had out of college who, after welcoming me to the team and detailing what she wanted me to do, looked me squarely in the eye and warned, “Don’t mess this up.”
I’m happy to say that I didn’t. But as time wore on and more anxious warnings ensued, I also stopped suggesting new ideas or questioning old assumptions. It just didn’t seem worth sticking my neck out.
As I neared the 12-month mark, I decided to move on.
I share this story because I know it’s not an isolated one. Too often people in leadership roles, fearful of reputational damage should anything go amiss under their watch, incite fear in those they lead. Fear of failure. Fear of mistakes. Fear of speaking up. Fear of challenging outdated ideas, and fear of experimenting with new ones. Over time, this fear spreads like a virus, limiting crucial conversations, stifling innovation and driving capable, creative people to play it safe or, like me, just head for the door. Either way, everyone ends up worse off.
The greatest threat to any organization is the fear that resides within its walls – the fear that fuels risk aversion, short-sighted decision making and blind conformity. If the emotional pulse in your workplace beats to the drum of fear, don’t despair. While it may be hard to change the culture of an entire organization in the short term, you have the power to change the culture within your team if you hold a leadership role. Here are six ways you can do that.
1. Create your own bold vision.
If you want to create the psychological safety needed to embolden others to speak up, experiment and put themselves ‘out there,’ you must first be clear about why you need to do so yourself. Set aside dedicated time to write down an inspiring vision for yourself – your career/business, your leadership and your life. One that will compel you to act with the courage you wish to inspire in others. Fear may be contagious, but so too is passion. What are you passionate about? Why does it matter? All great leadership begins with self-leadership, so make your mission bigger than your fear.
2. Foster a shared sense of mission.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that he had a dream, he rallied millions with a deep sense of mission that still runs strong today. While you may not be leading a social justice movement, if you’re unable to help people connect to a cause greater than their own safety and security, you’ll never unlock their potential or tap their creativity. How does your organization seek to solve problems, enable enjoyment, reduce suffering, foster security or facilitate connection? You must rally people behind a collective mission that transcends catchy brand slogans and shallow corporate mission statements. The more closely you tie the mission of your organization to real world struggles that tap the innate human hunger for a meaning and purpose, the more passionately engaged your colleagues and team will become.
3. Help people get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.
One of my more humiliating moments in recent years was during what I had assumed would be a fun outing with friends to a circus school in Washington, D.C. However, after I climbed the rope ladder to the trapeze platform 25 feet (eight meters) above the ground, I found myself frozen in terror. Of course, intellectually I knew that my safety harness, coupled with the safety net beneath, left little risk for injury, much less death. Yet, there I quivered, as though I was about to walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon…with no harness or net.
Fear does that. Hardwired into our psychological DNA, it can keep us from taking the very actions our future success and happiness depend upon. It took a few minutes – and my friends yelling out phrases from the titles of my books from below – “Find Your Courage, Stop Playing Safe” – before I mustered up my courage, reached out for that bar, and, with a terrified scream, swung through the air. Not my most gracious moment.
My short-lived circus adventure not only affirmed that I hadn’t missed my calling to join Cirque du Soleil, but it affirmed how innately wired we are to seek security, not to risk it. Using the trapeze analogy, if a leader focuses only on the consequences of failure, they enlarge the holes in the psychological safety net of those around them. It’s why, in times of change and uncertainty, when people are feeling most uncertain, leaders must help people get comfortable feeling uncomfortable, and embolden them to lean toward risk, not away from it. By actively building the psychological safety, they help to ease anxiety and foster the confidence needed for people to embrace change and lean toward risk, rather than away from it.
4. Reframe the risk of failure.
Do you encourage people to take a chance, or do you tend more to warnings of what might happen if they mess up? Do you share your own failures and what you learned from them? By highlighting the valuable lessons you’ve gained from your ‘miss-steps’ and setbacks, you help to normalize failure and make others feel more comfortable risking it. As people give themselves permission to make mistakes and not do things perfectly the first time, they are liberated to experiment with more ideas , to risk more rejections, and not to over personalize failures. After all, the more willing people are to risk failure, the faster they can learn what it takes to succeed.
Just imagine what new ground your team and organization could cover if everyone was willing to let go their caution and try out new ideas, despite the chances they may not all land brilliantly. Imagine what else you could achieve if you did so yourself.
5. Be humble and listen well.
“If you are a good listener, people will always support you,” said Bill Marriott, Chairman of Marriott International, during a conversation I had with him at Marriott headquarters. He went on to share a powerful lesson on leadership he gained while quail shooting with General Eisenhower as a young man. The lesson: take time to listen and never assume you have the best answers.
Most leaders do lip service to the importance of listening. Far fewer actually walk the talk. Too busy. Too certain. Too cocky. Yet leaders who genuinely listen to those around them (including people with less positional power) will win trust, earn respect and get more people on board with change faster. Leaders who who assume they know better and are too proud to bother asking questions, much less listening to the answers, will do just the opposite.It exacts a steep toll all round.
How often do you take time to really listen to the people around you? Just a few minutes of asking questions trying to understand what others think and feel can have a profound impact.
6. Normalize loyal dissension.
The conversations people most need to have are often those they least want to have. Particularly if they’re afraid that speaking up might result humiliation or retaliation. The higher one climbs up the organizational ladder, the more conversations get filtered and opinions diluted. Yet only when people feel safe enough to ask bold questions, to challenge old thinking and to probe the thinking of those higher up, can new and better ideas be developed.
It’s explains why Edgar Schein, an expert on leadership and culture from MIT Sloan School of Management, has found one of the leading hallmarks for great leaders is humility. The kind that makes others feel safe and invites dissent.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln invited his political opponents to join his cabinet because he knew that fostering rigorous debate would optimize the quality of the decisions he made. Likewise, creating a culture with an “obligation to dissent” – a concept embedded into the McKinsey culture by their early Managing Partner Marvin Bower – encourages people who hold opinions outside the consensus to share them.
Distinguishing between dissent and disloyalty normalizes dissension, fosters better conversations, fuels creative thinking, increases the number of ideas put forward and raises the number successfully implemented. So, before you express your opinion, solicit the opinions of those with whom you don’t see eye to eye, those with less authority and any team members who may feel like outsiders. And when people disagree, acknowledge the value you place on their input, even if you don’t agree with it.
People play safe when they feel unsafe to do otherwise. Given the pace of change and the anxiety it can fuel, make sure you’re not adding to it by dwelling more on what scares you than on the vision that inspires you. Instead, trust yourself to handle whatever comes, and then be extra deliberate in role modeling and rewarding the brave behaviors you want to encourage in others. After all, great leadership extends from the inside out.
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