Fear is a potent emotion that can sabotage success for even the brightest minds. It can also undermine an organisations ability to harness the human potential of those within it. Learning how to create a ‘culture of courage’ in which employees feel safe to push back, take risks and explore new possibilities is becoming an ever more valuable skill in today’s marketplace.
The latest Gallup figures show that over half of the workforce is categorised as disengaged. More alarming is that nearly 1 in 5 workers are ‘actively disengaged’ – actually against their organisation, their boss, or both. If you only had five people working for you, this would make for a bleak support team! Given that engagement is indispensable to building competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, these numbers are a siren call to leaders at all levels.
In today’s rapidly changing market, the most successful organisations are those whose leaders are able to create a ‘culture of courage’ that not only engages the heads and hearts of its employees, but that emboldens them to think more daringly, to take risks, and to challenge the very assumptions that may have underpinned their organisations success to date. Yes, that includes feeling free to question the boss’ logic!
There are many theories on fostering greater employee engagement and no one clear solution. My research and experience working across cultures, industries and hemispheres is that the most simple paradigms tend to be the most useful when it comes to every day application by busy leaders and time poor managers. The adjacent engagement framework incorporates three core domains to fostering a ‘Culture of Courage’ which both deepens engagement and elevates performance.
Engage – Connect Authentically
Being able to communicate effectively with employees to direct and guide their actions first requires making a genuine connection with them. Engaging authentically with people around you is the first task of genuine leadership.
This requires leaders leaving their offices to join employees on the shop floors and front line where employees live each workday. It requires a willingness to lay vulnerability on the line, share authentically, to engage in open unstructured sessions of discussion where they risk direct criticism, tough questions, open hostility and even unsuccessful outcomes, and to constantly acknowledge the efforts of those around them.
Relationships are the currency of the workplace, and so the stronger a leaders connections, the better placed they will be to engage their employees. People will be far more ready to go the extra mile for leaders they can relate to on a human level, rather than someone whom they perceive thinks of themselves as a ‘little bit better’ than everyone else. As Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger shared in their HBR article Connect then lead, “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviours”.*
Inspire – Enlarge the Context; Explain the “Why”
It’s part of the human DNA to want a sense of purpose and meaning in our work, not just our lives outside it; know that what we are doing with our time, talents and expertise is for something bigger than just a paycheck. Sadly, millions see no utility in what they do beyond the income it provides. Research shows those same people tend to be less willing to put forth extra effort when it’s needed, are more prone to cutting corners, and more likely to cover up mistakes. The cost to the bottom line runs into the billions.
For this reason it is imperative for leaders to enlarge the context, helping employees understand the bigger “Why” so they can then view what they are doing through a bigger lens. Doing so enables employees to reframe their role in the context of how it contributes not just to the organisation’s mission, but the impact that mission serves in the world at large.
“A leader who does not inspire is like a river without water,” wrote leadership expert Lance Secretan in his book Inspire! What great leaders do. Indeed, there is little more demoralising to workers than having a leader who can’t clearly articulate why employees should care about what they’re doing. Leaders must continually work to ensure employees know that their role, however seemingly small relative to organisations output, is both valued and valuable. When people know that there’s something bigger at stake as they go about their work, they will approach every challenge with greater determination, resourcefulness and initiative than they otherwise would.
Embolden – Nurture Courage
Human beings are innately risk averse and, when assessing their options, will err toward caution. As I shared in Stop Playing Safe, neuro-research has found that we are wired to overestimate the size of risks, underestimate our ability to handle them and to deny or discount the cost of inaction. Accordingly, the majority of people will only take risks when they assess that it is safe for them to do so. For this reason it’s vital for leaders, at all levels, to create an environment that celebrates innovative thinking and provides a safety net for employees to take risks, make ‘smart mistakes,’ challenge status quo thinking, and provide candid upward feedback. When employees feel that their contribution is truly valued, and are challenged to experiment, and express their opinions openly (and constructively), it triggers greater ownership of their own success as well as their commitment to the larger mission of their team and organisation.
When leaders are committed and actively working to engage, inspire and embolden – they unleash untapped potential and raise the bar not just on productivity, but on the value their organisation contributes to all it’s stakeholders. Additionally, and of no less significance, they nurture and embolden a new generation of leaders to take on the yet seen challenges of tomorrow, clear in the knowledge that while what we do each day at work matters, it is the attitude we bring to what we do that matters far more.
By Margie Warrell
Forbes Columnist, master coach, international speaker and bestselling author. www.margiewarrell.com
*‘Connect, then lead’ in Harvard Business Review, Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger
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