Barriers to a Courageous Culture
- People don’t think leadership wants their ideas.
Executives, managers, and employees described what happened when they approached their boss with a great idea and an executable plan to improve the business. In many cases, their boss agreed their concept would work and was doable, but then they were told to go back and do things “the old way.”
Forty-one percent of survey respondents said leadership doesn’t value innovation, and 67 percent said leadership operates on the notion that “this is how we’ve always done it.”
Why this matters: If employees don’t think you really want their ideas, they won’t bother to offer them. Your best thinkers are still thinking, but not about your business. They’re starting a side gig, getting proficient at their hobby, or figuring out their next move.
- No one asks.
One significant reason employees say they don’t share what they think is that “no one asked.” An astonishing 49 percent of employees surveyed said that they are not regularly asked for their ideas. And 35 percent said they were never asked for their ideas when initially trained for their role.
We heard from many managers who acknowledged that frontline employee microinnovations and customer service enhancements are vital for success, but they lack any regular way to ask for ideas.
Why this matters: You might think you’re asking for ideas because you have an open-door policy or your company has a sophisticated suggestion system. But that’s not enough for most employees to feel that they’ve been genuinely invited to contribute. Asking well requires a cadence of regularly asking for specific insights and ideas.
- They lack confidence to share.
Forty percent of respondents said they don’t feel confident sharing their ideas. That’s not surprising considering how often managers (not just frontline employees) said they were told to keep their heads down and just do their work:
- “I didn’t hire you to fix our company.”
- “It’s not your job to think about that.”
- “I didn’t ask you for your ideas.”
- “The problem is that we have too many ideas. I don’t want any more.”
Why this matters: It’s far easier to default to safe silence, and people remember the stressful times more than the time they spoke up and their idea was heard. There are a wide range of reasons why employees lose confidence, from toxic management behaviors to insecurities they’re bringing with them from home. You need to be deliberate in understanding what’s crushing people’s courage and work to eliminate the real and imagined barriers preventing the humans on your team from contributing their best thinking.
- They lack the skills to share effectively.
In many cases, employees simply don’t know how to speak up in a way that can be heard. “In hindsight, I really hadn’t done all the research.” “I think I came into my new role a bit too gung ho. I had so many ideas—I think they thought I was cocky and critical.”
Interestingly, 45 percent said there’s currently no training available at their organization for problem solving and critical thinking.
Why this matters: Even if you’re hiring experienced managers, chances are they haven’t been trained to think critically, solve complex problems, or to encourage microinnovation and problem solving on their teams. And these skills are not intuitive for most people. If you want people to proactively identify and solve problems or find more innovative solutions, you’ve got to train them. If you want people to advocate for the customer, you need to give them the skills to know how to do that well from a balanced business perspective and give them parameters to help guide their decision-making.
- People don’t think anything will happen, so they don’t bother.
One of the most significant issues, even in some of the highest performing organizations, is that people are convinced their ideas will be ignored.
Fifty percent of the employees we surveyed said they believe that if they share an idea, it won’t be taken seriously. And the number one reason people said they would keep a microinnovation to themselves (56 percent) is concern that they would not get credit for their idea.
Why this matters: You may be asking for ideas and even doing something with them, but if there’s no feedback loop, employees will assume nothing is happening. And no one wants to make contributions that aren’t recognized or valued. It’s human nature to stop trying and redirect energy where you believe it will do some good. Our research is filled with examples of smart, creative people, even at the executive level, who made deliberate decisions to stop bringing new ideas because they felt it was a waste of time.
Small Acts Of Courage Set The Foundation For Courageous Cultures
So where do you start? What are the courageous acts that lay the foundation?
Show a Bit of Vulnerability
Vulnerability builds trust. Your employees want to know they’re working for a human being. Have the courage to let people see a bit more of who you really are and to admit when you’re wrong or don’t have all the answers. Healthy vulnerability builds trust and connection.
Nothing drives high performers crazier than a boss who looks the other way and lets slackers slide. Have the courage to provide consistent performance feedback and address performance issues directly. When you do this early and often, the chances of you having to do the really tough stuff—like fire the guy—reduce significantly.
Advocate for Your Team
When employees complain that “my boss is a wuss,” it’s often because their boss won’t advocate for the team’s ideas or needs—even when they claim to agree. The minute their boss or a peer asks for more clarification or challenges an idea, they back down. If you can’t influence others, your team will wonder why they need you.
Another huge reason employees tell us their boss lacks courage is their boss’s unwillingness to experiment with new ideas or approaches. If “It ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is your favorite mantra, learning the art of a well-run pilot program can go a long way in increasing your courage while reducing your stress.
Make Timely Decisions
No one wants to work for a waffler. Have the courage to make decisions and stick to them. If you struggle with this, get your team to help you.
One of the most surprising findings in our research was that a primary reason people are reluctant to share ideas is because they won’t get the credit. A surefire way to stunt the growth of a creative culture is to steal the credit. When in doubt, credit the team.
Silence Affects Your Bottom Line
As long as employees remain silent, companies will lose money on flawed projects, innovations that never happen, and subpar customer service. These companies are also likely to see lower morale and higher turnover rates because teams feel discouraged about expressing opinions. The same dynamic applies in nonprofit businesses where efficiencies that serve clients and save money are vital for survival.
Gallup’s data reveals that a mere three out of ten US workers strongly agree that their opinions seem to count at work. But by moving that ratio to six in ten employees, organizations “could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents, and a 12% increase in productivity.”7
Simply put: the ideas people hold back are not trivial. And the majority of these ideas are not self-serving (kombucha on tap or foosball tables in the break room).
How To Make Courage Work
According to Edmondson, “Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able—even obligated—to be candid.”9
That’s the shift: not just “able” to tell their truth or contribute an idea, but “obligated.” Cultural courage makes sharing and speaking up the norm, not just a behavior to be tolerated. The paradox of truly Courageous Cultures is that they require less daily courage for routine conversations.
Where does that trust start?
It starts with you. It takes courage to change a culture. This is the real work of leadership: the courage to change, to confront, to be vulnerable. Your courage activates the transformation to a Courageous Culture in which everyone knows their ideas are needed, valued, and implemented because leaders at every level regularly ask, respond, and equip employees to innovate, exchange best practices, and speak up on behalf of their customers.
Courageous Culture in Action
Clarity is focus, alignment, and doing what works. Clarity means that everyone in the organization has a shared understanding of what success looks like. Clarity ensures that your brand promise is kept in every interaction. People get where you are headed and why. Clarity contributes three critical elements to a Courageous Culture: safety, confidence, and direction. Clarity helps people speak up because they know what success looks like, what’s required of them, and how they can contribute. Clarity produces confidence that you can take a good idea and make it happen. Finally, Clarity gives people a direction to focus their thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
In organizations with a strong commitment to Clarity:
- executives communicate a clear vision of the future and what success looks like;
- managers translate vision to behaviors and ensure all employees understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how their work fits in; and
- frontline employees know what to do and how to do it well.
Curiosity is questioning, exploring, and trying what’s new. Curiosity means that everyone explores how to improve. People ask great questions and actively listen to one another. Curiosity ensures that your organization consistently becomes the best version of itself. Curiosity contributes to a Courageous Culture by shifting the culture from permission to intention. Solving problems and speaking up isn’t just allowed—it’s who you are and what you do.
In organizations with a strong commitment to Curiosity:
- executives look for suggestions, solicit ideas, and act on what they learn;
- managers are on the lookout for new ideas and best practices—when they see them, they share them; and
- frontline employees find and surface ways to improve the business and customer experience
In many organizations, Clarity and Curiosity don’t coexist. Leaders focus on one or the other and experience predictable challenges. When you embrace Clarity to the exclusion of Curiosity, you miss opportunities that are hiding in plain sight. Silos and internal competition creep in as forward motion grinds to a halt.
You often lose top talent who want to innovate and achieve breakthrough results. Ultimately, you have teams full of people who just want to be told what to do and aren’t creating the future.
In contrast, when you embrace Curiosity to the exclusion of Clarity, you’ll experience a different set of challenges. Your customers’ experience of your brand fluctuates wildly. You can’t scale and it can take forever to implement change or best practices. Once again, you lose top talent—this time because they get frustrated at your organization’s inability to follow through and achieve results. You’ll often see teams full of “lone rangers” who invent their own, often different, ways to do the work.
In contrast, when you build a Courageous Culture, you integrate Clarity and Curiosity. In the dance between the two, each characteristic takes the spotlight, but they’re always holding hands.
1.Identify the focus areas of a Courageous Culture you want to create: microinnovation, problem solving, or customer advocacy. For example, you may be all about problem solving and innovation but are not quite ready for the customer-advocacy piece. Or it could be the opposite. Perhaps your sole focus is to improve your customer experience and you want to start with a deep focus on what it means to be a Customer Advocate. You might want to start more narrowly and focus your team on solving customer-impacting issues or how to get more creative at solving customer problems on the spot.
2.Take the focus you identified in step one and create a focus question. Here are a few examples:
- Imagine it’s two years from now and we have microinnovation happening at every level of the organization. What behaviors are we seeing at the executive, manager, and frontline level?
- What would it really mean for us to have an organization in which every employee was empowered and encouraged to be a true Customer Advocate? What behaviors would we see at the executive, manager, and frontline level?
- How do we get better at solving the most important problems impacting our business? What behaviors do we need to develop, encourage, and reward at the executive, manager, and frontline level?
Notice that every one of these questions is focused on identifying behaviors. That’s vital to make this vision something you can clearly describe, train to, reinforce, observe, and measure. One way to ensure the conversation you are about to have is focused on behaviors is to imagine if you could hire a videographer to record what was happening on a day two years from now. What behaviors would she capture when your vision is a reality?
Your Courageous Future
Courage is often portrayed as a lonely act—taking a stand when no one else will; being the first to speak truth to power; being the only one to do what they said couldn’t be done.
Courage doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, it’s less effective when it is.
When you surround yourself with others who also believe that silence isn’t safe and that effort is everything, you’ll soon find you feel lonelier hiding your truth than speaking it. Don’t forget that your team is watching too. When you advocate for them and your customers, they’ll feel that they’re in good company when they do too. And just like that, you have others acting courageously and doing what must be done, while encouraging one another. That’s the paradox of a truly Courageous Culture: the more courage in your culture, the less courage you ask from individuals.
Your first tracks on this journey will likely be the most difficult, as well as the most rewarding. As you find the others, those lonely footprints will begin to form into a well-laid path of courage and hope for others to follow. That’s the power of a Courageous Culture.
1.Navigate the Narrative. Leverage your courageous moments to inspire future confidence.
2.Create Clarity. Build a foundation of safety, direction, and confidence.
3.Cultivate Curiosity. Intentionally seek out ideas, engagement, and solutions.
4.Respond with Regard. Acknowledge, celebrate, and invite more contribution.
5.Practice the Principle. Find the universal ideas that can scale and localize best practices.
6.Galvanize the Genius. Build momentum, sustain success, and prevent a return to old behaviors.
7.Build an Infrastructure for Courage. Align system and processes to support your Courageous Culture.