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(1) Edmondson, Amy C. et al Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 1: 23 – 43, 2014
(2) Perlow, Leslie et al Is Silence Killing Your Company? Harvard Business Review May 2003
(3) Raemer, Daniel B. et al Improving Anesthesiologists’ Ability to Speak Up in the Operating Room Acad Med. 91:530– 539, 2016
(4) Salazar, Marco J. Barzallo et al Influence of Surgeon Behavior On Trainee Willingness to Speak Up: A Randomized Controlled Trial J Am Coll Surg 219:1001-1009, 2014
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In this article you will learn what psychological safety is and why it is simple, important, and fragile.
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This article addresses a question I’m asked frequently by leaders: How can I foster an environment of empowerment when I have to make decisions at times which may cause some people to feel disempowered and distressed?
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Additional Information and Resources
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This article will provide a brief introduction to the Leadership Fractal and how this concept can provide an efficient and effective way to shape culture in the flow of daily work.
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In this article you will learn how to give direction and coach at the same time. This is one of the more difficult balancing acts in leadership and it is crucial to the best results.
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Whitmore, John Coaching for Performance Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2009
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In this article you will learn why coaching is so important to effective leadership and how to coach when it feels like there is No Time.
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Imagine someone has video-recorded you during every minute of your work the last week and you are now watching it. What are the odds that you will wince in some parts because of mistakes in the way you behaved or communicated?
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Our beliefs about what causes problematic behavior in others substantially impact our ability to influence change.
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Having trouble motivating others?--a quick diagnostic
Active telling--the art of assuring people listen to you
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It is nearly automatic to feel that resistance is about the people resisting—that resistance is IN the resistors.
When caught in this perspective, we tend to focus on our “messaging” (the content of what we are saying) in order to convince them or motivate them or get them to buy-in. This approach creates substantial risk that people will feel we are trying to change them leading to push back or passive compliance with a negative impact on results.
There is a more effective way but it requires a shift in perspective. We need to see that it is not true resistance is IN others.
The worst mistakes I made over 24 years as an organizational leader were how I told things to people.
I know excellent leadership depends on great listening—I was a natural with that. Each moment of listening is a step forward in building commitment.
But, early in my career, my way of telling too often led to pushback or withdrawal into silence—it was like three steps backwards with commitment.
A recipe for people not really listening
At that time, I was driven by a need for success which led to a need to convince people of my ideas. So, I worked hard to present ideas in a powerful and inspirational way, minimizing weaknesses and flaws. I was well-prepared and could quickly counter any perceived limitations or risks.
The trouble was that people almost always had concerns—few organizational actions are risk-free. Too often, my quick retorts made them feel not listened to. This would provoke debate we could not resolve well or silent discontent which slowed or blocked the actions I wanted.
A paradox of skillful telling
As I sought research and advice about telling, I discovered that even the most inspirational speech is lucky if it gets even 20% of people on board! (1) The large majority of people have to talk their way toward commitment over multiple conversations.
Paradoxically, people are more likely to pull together around an idea if they are able to freely express and explore concerns. Also, people need to be able to talk things over to figure out how an idea connects to what is important to them.
I even had to face the humbling reality that my best ideas had holes and flaws. In complex systems, no one person has the full picture and everyone has a perspective to learn from. It was very hard, but I gradually learned to link success with actually seeking out negative reactions.
A method for skillful telling
To tell effectively I first prepare myself by remembering “My best ideas are just theories to be tested and improved upon.” Then I proceed with a cycle of Ask-Tell-Ask (2):
Several cycles of Ask-Tell-Ask get a lot out on the table. People are more likely to feel taken seriously. Concerns can get then converted into issues for problem solving and action.
Risks and traps in active telling
I call this approach active telling because, like active listening, it is two-way—the goal is to assure mutual understanding and exploration of ideas even if there is disagreement.
I have experienced first-hand several risks and traps. Watch out for the inevitable lure back into convincing others. Also, I have learned to be careful that helping others feel heard does not lead to premature abandonment or revision of my ideas. The reverse can happen--dealing with negativity can easily pull us all, at times, into getting more rigid and discounting feedback.
Human affairs are never perfect. There is no guarantee these methods mean people will really listen to you. But, the chances for getting to true commitment are much higher.
(1) Baker, Neil The Impact of a Visionary Speech.
(2) Adapted from multiple sources including Miller, William R., Rollnick, Stephen Motivational Interviewing The Guilford Press 2012. See the tool on active telling for full list of references.
Success sometimes depends on where you look.
Results from my survey of 420 healthcare leaders published in the Physician Leadership Journal in March 2016 suggest that relational barriers to improvement are very common but are all too frequently overlooked or inadequately addressed.
(If you wish to read the article, contact me and I will send you a copy.)
Since publication, a follow-up survey of 293 additional healthcare leaders adds to the story.
New data suggests an opportunity for action.
80% of the leaders in the new survey reported their organizations specify norms and values to guide behavior and communication. But, it appears that the norms and values are not used as often as needed--such as to give feedback to address problematic communication getting in the way of collaboration. In these situations, only 10% of the leaders indicated feedback happens very frequently and only 30% of the leaders indicated it happens even half of the time it is needed.
One likely cause is that giving and receiving feedback is quite uncomfortable—even for people with advanced communication skills. It is very easy for anyone, at times, to not take action.
Also, it is quite easy to fall into thinking of norms as correcting “bad” behavior which further inhibits feedback. Stress and complexity will cause everyone at times to act in ways inconsistent with team norms. Feedback is not about scolding bad behavior but giving necessary reminders to help everyone more consistently act at their highest level of relational skills.
How do you move beyond the discomfort of feedback?
You can’t--feedback just is uncomfortable.
But you can decrease discomfort by steady practice. This takes courage, determination, and hard work. You could act now by creating or revisiting norms with teams and protecting time in meetings to review what is and is not working.
Or, more simply, you could start by reading about relational issues (see references below) and reflecting about what you believe makes for good work relationships--i.e. get clear on your own norms. Practice watching for inevitable times you do not act consistently with your own norms. Test giving and receiving feedback with trusted colleagues.
If you find yourself not moving forward, consider getting consultation and coaching. Our task is to keep relational issues from becoming hidden in plain view. Achieving the highest quality of teamwork and the best results are at stake.
Resources for team norms and feedback.
Respect is not a passive state of being--it requires ongoing attention, intention and action. And, it is essential for outcomes.
As John Kotter notes "You have a better chance of winning over the other party if you truly hear them out and consider their needs as well as your own. The success of this principle is rooted in respect." (Harvard Business Review Blog, January 5, 2011)
In one of the most extensively studied models of transformational leadership, "individual consideration"-- when employees feel leaders are truly concerned about them, that their well being is important, that they are involved in two way exchanges of ideas--is a factor that, alone, leads to improved outcomes and employee satisfaction. (Bass et al, Transformational Leadership: Second Edition, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2006)
Respect cannot be considered a one-time action. In organizational life, the decks are stacked against sustaining an environment of respect no matter the level of skill and good intentions of leaders. At times, in everyone, the constant stress and complexity of business environments provoke innately human and automatic habits of mind that lead to rejecting what is uncomfortable or unfamiliar, and becoming fixated on one's own ideas as certainties. (William Isaacs Dialogue, 1999)
When these habits start to take over, people will tend to fall into debates over who is right as opposed to mutual exploration of ideas. Then, an environment of respect starts to deteriorate.
An ongoing practice of respect is required to counteract these tendencies. Some of the elements that are part of such a practice:
(a) Suspend certainty and become curious about what others think, feel, and believe and why.
(b) Shift from a communication pattern of debate (right vs.wrong) to one of mutual exploration
of ideas even if in disagreement.
(c) Constantly use active listening to assure others feel understood even if what they are saying
runs counter to one's own beliefs--use paraphrasing and "teach back" to check understanding.
(d) Make a staunch commitment to seeing others as worthy of being engaged in partnership.
(e) Offer absolute acceptance of legitimacy of concerns even if in disagreement--e.g. ""I see why
this matters to you." or "I can see where you are coming from." or "I can see how you came to
(f) Develop an ever deepening understanding of what language and action is experienced by
others as respectful vs. disrespectful.
(g) Stand firm on and communicate one's own perspectives but in a way that allows different
beliefs and does not provoke defensiveness or withdrawal--e.g. "This is the way I see it." as
as opposed to "This is the way it is."
A mind set that helps to sustain respect is to always treat people as teachers--"what is it that they have to teach you that you did not know?" (Isaacs, 1999)
It is hard to even say the word "hierarchy" without evoking negative reactions, conjuring up images of stifling rules and procedures, excess management oversight which suffocates innovation, and demeaning top-down control.
This is why a popular notion has been to flatten hierarchies--i.e. to eliminate layers of management and broaden managers' span of responsibility (i.e. more staff reporting to each manager). The prediction is that this would save money, shift decision making downwards, increase empowerment, and enhance motivation.
Multiple studies run counter to expectations:
Conclusion: Flattening hierarchy may seem like an obvious solution to the ills of hierarchy. But, there are no easy recipes for success in business. The inter-relationships between number of layers of managers, ratio of managers to staff, and degree of empowerment are quite complicated.
Alternate theory: Changes in structure should come secondary to and only after an examination of the nature of relationships. A key question is whether all those with positional authority in the hierarchy are held responsible not just for whether work is done but also for quality of work environment. Changes primarily in structure are very unlikely to fix problems in this area and actually risk making things worse.
(1) Wulf, Julie The Flattened Firm-Not As Advertised Harvard Business School Working Paper, 12-087, April 9, 2012
(2) Lorenz, Mary Employers Plan to Bring Back Middle Management Positions November 2011,
(3) Gittell, Jody Hoffer Paradox of Coordination and Control California Management Review, Spring 2000, Vol. 42, No. 3,
(4) Gitell, Jody Hoffer Transforming Relationships for High Performance Stanford Business Books 2014
(5) Yeatts, Dale E. and Hyten, Cloyd High-Performing Self-Managed Work Teams Sage Publications 1998
(6) Buckingham, Marcus and Coffman, Curt First Break All the Rules The Gallup Organization, 1999
(1) Check your theory of motivation. "Having trouble motivating others?" is a trick question. You can't motivate others--at least if you want intrinsic motivation (defined as when people are fully willing and embrace a change out of interest and commitment).
Adults make their own choices. Trying to coax or arm-twist is likely to cause them to withdraw or just comply which leads to poor outcomes in complex tasks. Intrinsic motivation arises through partnership and collaboration. People have to "talk their way" toward taking on a change. The leader's task is to create the environment for collaborative relationships which can support robust conversations about change.
(2) Check your state of reactivity. If you are impatient or frustrated, you are likely to be in a reactive state and at risk for coaxing and arm-twisting. Find a way to get curious about others--use the five factors listed below to guide your questions. Find your way to trusting and respecting different decision-making processes.
(3) Check the context and state of relationships. For example, if you have previously fallen into pressuring others to change, it will take time to build trust as you shift to a collaborative approach. What other factors in the environment are influencing consideration of a particular change?
(4) Ask others questions to explore five factors for engagement with intrinsic motivation.
When considering a change, motivation does not usually happen overnight. Even with the most charismatic, inspirational speech, you are lucky if you inspire no more than about 20% of people to action. Most people need ongoing conversations, individual consideration, and collaboration to take new directions.
It may seem strange to link vulnerability with results because vulnerability is so often associated with weakness.
As defined by Brene Brown through her research, vulnerability is inherent in life--we cannot avoid "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure." Our choice is how we "own and engage with our vulnerability." (1)
"To be vulnerable with others" means choosing to say what we really think and feel. It is about engaging in open, honest, and transparent communication. This means taking risks: of showing imperfection; of being wrong; of losing popularity; of losing status.
In organizations, an "open and trusting environment" has been linked with financial performance--"fostering trust among managers and employees so that they are open to sharing information, providing and receiving honest feedback, and having difficult conversations." These are factors which enhance an organization's ability to "align, execute, and renew." (2)
Vulnerability does not mean "letting it all hang out" or emotional catharsis. (1) It demands appropriate openness that does not provoke defensiveness and withdrawal but builds partnership.
An organization will likely have a difficult time establishing group norms for safe conversation unless leaders "go first"--that is, unless leaders are active participants. Taking the lead in being vulnerable is hard to do but "the best cure for the fear of being burned is opening yourself up to being burned. Sometimes it's even okay to get burned because you realize it's not fatal." (3)
How safe is it to be vulnerable in your workplace? One indication is the way leaders talk. Listen for statements like: "I don't know; I need help; I am not sure but I feel we need to take the risk; It failed but I learned a lot; I made a mistake; I apologize; My idea may be completely off-base but I want your reactions; What can I do better next time?; I played a part in that." (1)
These statements may seem like weakness but this kind of vulnerability actually "sounds like truth and feels like courage...Truth and courage may not be comfortable but they are not weakness." (1)
(1) Brown, Brene Daring Greatly, Gotham Books, 2012
(2) De Smet, Aaron et al The Missing Link: Connecting Organizational and Financial Performance McKinsey and
Co., February 2007 (downloaded at McKinsey.com)
(3) Lencioni, Patrick The Five Temptations of a CEO Jossey-Bass, 1998
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