A recent study by MIT’s Sloan School of Management identifies courage as a foundational virtue for individuals and organizations. In fact, the study’s authors found that many other positive cultural qualities such as creativity, curiosity and clear communication in fact extend from courage as a prerequisite. More specifically, the study concludes that “innovative, growth-oriented behaviors that promote learning” are generally ones that require courage to undertake.
Sadly, the study also finds that far too few cultures today exhibit the courageous behaviors that lead to these types of cultures. This is likely because on an individual level, the behaviors associated with courage are seen as personally risky. For our cultures to be more courageous — and by extension more innovative, adaptive and constantly learning — we need to dismantle this pervasive sense of fear by fostering psychological safety.
Employees’ perceptions of courage and risk are not just shaped by their current working environment, but by a lifetime of accumulated experiences. They require deliberate attention to unwind and dismantle. As leaders, we need to be intentional about creating spaces where employees feel safe to express themselves, voice concerns and speak candidly. This is not a shift that will happen by accident. Rather, you have to give people a new experience, taking them out of familiar settings and breaking routines in order to jolt their thinking. As we emerge from this pandemic and adapt to new ways of working, leaders should seek courage by showing courage, experimenting in new ways of connecting with their organizations.
Simple ideas to consider:
- Admitting failure is often seen as a sign of weakness, when in fact it’s often an act of courage. To dispel this common belief, incorporate lessons from setbacks and failures into your business leaders’ regular business updates. If top executives have the courage to recognize and learn from failure, it’ll breed that behavior in others.
- Reserve special time to air fears. Often, naming fears and stating them out loud in fact serves to diminish their power. As a leader, when introducing a new idea, reserve and allot a special set of time to specifically ask people what fears or concerns they might have. Start with your own.
- Host project wakes. One thing that terrifies people of failure is that only successes tend to receive celebration. A well-conceived, well-executed idea that fails to achieve its goals is still a valuable effort. Just like you might convene a happy hour or host a lunch to recognize a major accomplishment, give the same treatment to initiatives that failed to live up to expectations despite quality effort.
According to McKinsey research, each year, companies collectively spend $8B on diversity training. Despite those massive levels of investment, unfortunately, research shows that most DE&I training currently affects very little lasting change. Over the last year, as we’ve all contemplated what more we can do to promote equity in society, this persistent failure of diversity training to achieve workplace breakthroughs has taken on added urgency. Companies of all shapes and sizes have made DE&I pledges: Now, the onus is on them to deliver.
On their own, the numbers show that DE&I trainings are rarely substantial or sustained enough to deliver lasting change. These trainings – many of which rely too heavily on facts, figures, and other means of intellectual persuasion – often succeed at building awareness of inequities but fail at inspiring new behaviors. They demonstrate the problem and tell us what not to do. Too often, however, when it comes to their own role in fostering inclusion and bolstering equity, people are left to fill in the blanks by themselves. That’s where progress languishes.
DE&I training is important, but it faces the limitations of any classroom environment. To make a deeper impact, it can only be a first step. We need to do more to merge knowledge with empathy. We have to give employees a clearer sense not only of big picture inequity, but how that inequity is experienced by their diverse friends and colleagues. As best they can, they need to see the world through different eyes and walk it in different shoes. This means augmenting episodic training with frequent dialogue.
We cannot place the burden on colleagues from diverse backgrounds to create space to voice their experience themselves. Rather, it’s incumbent on us as leaders to create these forums intentionally and deliberately.
Simple ideas to consider:
- Implement a courageous conversations program, as modeled in exemplary fashion by General Mills (and many other companies).
- Create a dedicated intranet page to share first-hand perspectives on DE&I issues, such as VMware’s #WeHearYou.
- Develop a dialogue-based podcast, where leaders interview real-life employees to explore their experiences and share their perspectives.
Leaders all want a clear vision of how work will optimally occur in this new hybrid model. However, there are many unknowns and much to be determined. While planning for different groups and scenarios, anticipating potential friction and communicating clearly are essential actions right now, even the best-laid plans will suffer bruises on arrival. In many ways, the best thing we can do right now is build adaptability itself into our hybrid models. In this post-pandemic era, smart businesses will be adjusting as problems arise, and the smartest businesses will be identifying problems before they can even take effect.
Adaptability is going to work hand-in-hand with our ability to extract, analyze and act on the reams of employee data we’re now able to collect. When it comes time to adjust and pivot, the organizations that are most data-savvy will have an enormous competitive advantage. This will require, in part, a philosophical shift, and some demystification. Today, data collection is an idea that gets many employees spooked. It has connotations of “big brother” and ruthless performance measurement. It is often seen as a means of controlling employees rather than supporting them. In the new age of measurement, leaders need to embrace a shift from data as a way of monitoring productivity to data as a way of enhancing the employee experience.
Simple ideas to consider:
- Use technology to encourage personal time. Whether it’s hours logged into VPN, activity on email, Slack or Teams or badges showing office entrances and exits, it’s easy to identify when employees are working too long of hours. Reward them — and help them avoid burnout — by reminding those experiencing work surges to take time away.
- Make a habit of announcing process and policy changes. Frequently, small changes are made based on employee data that improve various processes and policies. However, employees aren’t always aware that data drove those changes. Each town hall meeting, reserve time to share trends, learnings and actions from employee data.
- Publish a data handbook. One reason data scares employees is because they feel uncertain what is being tracked, how and why. Let them know! Publish a readily available handbook that describes what data is being tracked, why and what you hope to learn from it. By being transparent, you’ll not only likely see greater focus, but data will start to be viewed as an asset.
If you’re interested in this subject, listen to Dr. Michael Walsh’s episode of our Let Go & Lead podcast. An expert in people analytics, Dr. Walsh helps organizations increase employee retention, improve succession planning and better tap into talent using data.