Look Before You Leap
As a manager, you may be tempted to resort to stoking people’s fear when they aren’t getting things done. Maybe this was the approach your bosses used on you. If you aim to build people’s courage, however, you won’t get there by putting fear inside them. You’ll get there by filling workers with enough courage that they can dominate their fears.
And the rewards are worth it. Workers who are courage-led are more engaged, committed, optimistic, loyal, and change-embracing. Why wouldn’t they be? Imagine working for a boss whose vision was so bold that it actually excited you. Imagine working for a manager who valued mistake making as a natural and necessary part of your professional development. Imagine working for a manager who actually saw ass kissing as a repulsive, manipulative, and dishonest thing. Then go a step further and imagine what the whole company might look like if all the managers led by putting courage into their workers. It would be a workplace where you could implicitly trust the motives and intentions of everyone around you, and where you could speak the unvarnished truth without fear, and where you would make more forward-falling mistakes in order to better serve the company.
By Jumping First, you set an attitudinal and behavioral tone that others learn to emulate. It helps to lead not from where people are, but from where you need them to be. To this end, it is useful to identify the attitudes and behaviors you find frustrating, and then be sure to role-model opposite ones. If, for example, your direct reports are apathetic, you should counterbalance their apathy by being energetic. The idea here is that as a manager you shouldn’t expect workers to be held to a standard by which you don’t abide. Thus if you want workers to show more initiative, you first must show initiative. If you want them to go out of their way to understand how their work connects to a broader vision, or to have more accountability for their work, or to be more positive, you must do these things first. Going to work with your own courage will go a long way toward getting others to go to work with theirs.
Create Safety Nets
It is easier for workers to be courageous when you create safety nets. Increased safety lessens fear and increases workers’ willingness to carry out uncomfortable tasks. The height of the dive is determined by the depth of the pool. Likewise, the more substantial the risk you’re asking workers to take, the more safety nets you’ll have to put in place.
Keep in mind that it is rarely possible and often counterproductive to remove all danger from challenging situations. Regardless of how tightly woven the safety nets you’ve constructed are, there will still be holes in them, and those remaining holes will inspire fear. The next deals with how to harness fear. As the following shows, even when there are holes in workers’ safety nets, workers can still learn how to be courageous by putting fear to good use.
Many people wrongly exclude fear from the definition of courage, believing that courage is the absence of fear. Every time such people feel afraid, they assume that they aren’t courageous. The reality, though, is that courage is fearful. When we are acting courageously, we are, most typically, very afraid. But we don’t allow the fear we’re carrying to stop us. Instead, we press on. This is the signature feature of courage: to carry on despite being fearful. Fear, thus, is an essential element in the definition of courage. You can’t be courageous unless you are afraid.
When fear is included in the definition of courage, fearful situations turn into opportunities to demonstrate courage. The best evidence that a worker is being courageous is that she shows all the signs of being afraid but is taking action anyway. The worker whose voice shakes when giving a presentation to the senior team, but who presses on despite being afraid, is being courageous. So is the nervous worker who informs you immediately after making a mistake. Likewise the worker who risks her job by giving you feedback, politely but bluntly, that nobody else had the guts to give you. People who press on despite being full of fear epitomize what it means to be courageous. This is exactly the type of behavior that you as a manager want to acknowledge and reinforce. Few things stiffen the spine with pride as much as hearing your boss say things like “I’m impressed with how courageous you’re being” or “Thanks for being so courageous.”
Comfort is something we simultaneously (and contradictorily) strive for and guard against. We talk about performing better within our zone of comfort, but we also know that if we become too comfortable, our skills start to curdle like expired milk. Thus comfort ranges on a continuum between contentment and apathy, the former bringing strong feelings of security and the latter prompting feelings of resignation and defeat. After a while, comfort can become very uncomfortable. The silver lining: The more discomfort that comfort causes, the more likely we are to change and, potentially, grow.
The key for you as a manager is to modulate between comfort and discomfort by intensifying and de-intensifying the work challenges you parcel out to your staff. When they are nestled in their comfort zone, your role is to provide them with challenges that move them into a zone of discomfort. When they become too uncomfortable, your role is to bring them back to a place of confidence. This modulating between comfort and discomfort is exactly the process we used as high divers to stretch our capacity for doing harder (and higher) dives.