Are your employees empowered to challenge the status quo and take a chance? Or do they play it safe and fall neatly into line behind you? If the later, at what cost?
Tom is a clever guy. He works for a large insurance company and has all sorts of ideas of how they could be doing things better. But he doesn’t share them. Not any more anyway. Not since the last time he put himself ‘out there’ and was cut down for it. So he decided it wasn’t worth sticking his neck out. Now he just keeps his head down and gets on with doing his job, even when he knows there are better ways of doing it.
But at what cost?
To employees first of all. But to the end customers, to investors, and to all stakeholders. (If you own stock in such a company, this includes you.)
The reality is that people play safe unless they feel safe to do otherwise.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of employees who feel just this way. Particularly after all the disruption, uncertainty and change they’ve weathered through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Chances are you’ve encountered many talented, creative, capable people over the years who you felt were working largely within their ‘safety zone’ and not living up to their potential. People who could – if they had the courage – reel off all the ways their company might be doing things better but who simply felt too resigned or too afraid to speak up and challenge old thinking or suggest new ideas.
The reality is that companies need brave people. Lots of them. But brave people need to know that if they go out on a limb, and it starts to shake, that you’ve got their back. They need to feel confident that if they do take that leap of faith, and act with courage – challenge the consensus thinking, suggest a new approach, point out a current failure or flawed thinking – that it will be rewarded, not penalized. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of people who’ve taken risks and experienced just that.
But here’s the deal, if your business does not actively nurture courage and reward brave employees, you could be missing out big time, paying a ‘invisible tax’ on the fear that weaves through the hallways and Zoom-ways of your organization.
You see fear holds potential hostage. It stymies candid feedback, squashes creativity, foils debate, and shuts down the very crucial conversations needed to come up with better ways of moving forward.
It’s why the number one threat to building competitive edge in any enterprise is never an external one – new technology or new competitors or even global health crisis. It’s the fear that drives smart capable people to play it too safe; to make over-cautious, short-sighted decisions. Little wonder that psychological safety is the strongest predictor of high performing teams!
So if you’re in a role that could make it safer for people not to play safe, consider that the most important job you have is to create the conditions for people to bring their boldest thinking to the challenges at hand – to de-risk failure.
Play-it-safe cultures are play-to-lose cultures.
Fear of what could go wrong – versus a commitment to making things more right – drives the decision making of many people. It’s why so many employees are unwilling to say or do anything that might ‘rock the boat.’ They don’t want to be tipped out of it.
Fear shuts them down and shuts them up. All of why paralyzes any company from moving forward. Or at least at the pace needed to stay head and build edge.
Build the ranks of loyal dissenters
General George Patton once said, “if everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.” Your job is to make it safe for people to push back and dissent from the pack. And that includes to disagree with you. So if you’re wondering if you’re doing a good job at building that sense of psychological safety, just ask yourself how often people around you are disagreeing with you. If it’s not ‘often’ then chances are you’re missing out on the greatest value within your ranks. Diversity of opinion. In which case, actively ask people to push back on you. And when they do, actively listen, acknowledge their input, applaud their courage, and never, ever, make them regret being brave.
Make it a mission to build the ranks of brave dissenters. Your success is not determined by how compliant your people are, but by how brave they are. How willing they are not to bury issues but to raise them. Safe won’t accelerate growth or fuel innovation. Safe will get you status quo.
Set the brave example
Of course, there’s no better way to instill courage in the people around you than by acting with it yourself. If your employees can regularly see that you and your leadership team are constantly questioning the status quo, challenging their own best thinking and seeking out candid feedback – however confronting to their ego – they’ll be more emboldened to follow suit.
Courage lays at the heart of great leadership. Likewise, it takes a brave leader to build a brave team.
So let me ask you, where do you need to be braver?
More so, what price will you pay if you’re not?
Never discount the cost of caution. It’s often far steeper than you want to think.
Margie Warrell is a keynote speaker and bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe: How to be braver in work, leadership and life.