Medium 9781626569225

Permission to Speak Freely

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Lead So Your People Speak Freely

Candid communication enhances innovation, ownership, engagement, and performance. The benefits of hearing questions and uncertainties, good and bad ideas, and honest feedback are game-changing. Yet research shows that most of the time, people never share their true thoughts with each other—and especially not with their leaders.

But what if they did? What if everyone could confidently communicate without fearing a negative response? In Permission to Speak Freely, highly acclaimed leader developers Doug Crandall and Matt Kincaid illustrate the benefits of candor, explain the inhibitors that cause it to feel unsafe, and provide tools for leaders to encourage their people and embed trust and openness into the foundation of their organizational culture.

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1: Questions and Uncertainties

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There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions. . . . But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

CARL SAGAN, THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD

WE HAD A STUDENT, Paul, who was investigating a given career path and needed some help. One of us reached out to Micah—a friend in that field. Micah suggested that our student talk to a woman named Lisa, and we passed this info on to Paul via email. Shortly after, a text exchange followed:

PAUL: So email both of those two people?

US: Email Lisa and copy Micah.

PAUL: Like copy his email? Sorry I probably sound dumb.

US: When you send an email you can “copy” someone by putting them in the “cc” address. This means you’re sending it to Lisa but letting Micah know what’s going on.

PAUL: Oh, okay.

US: You don’t sound dumb.

 

2: Great Ideas and Terrible Ones

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You can’t just give someone a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.

—SIR KEN ROBINSON, BLOOMBERG INTERVIEW, FEBRUARY 22, 2006

WHEN ORGANIZATIONS EMPOWER every person—at every level—to share ideas, innovation thrives, engagement scores go up, and feelings of ownership increase. This short chapter could almost qualify for the “tell me something I don’t know” category, so we’ll tell you something you probably don’t know.

It turns out we all have a blind spot when it comes to hearing others’ ideas—a big one worthy of discussion: people tend to harbor a hidden bias against creativity. Almost no one will say it out loud, but research suggests that it’s close to universally true. We prefer known solutions, especially in times of uncertainty. Ironically, it’s at times of uncertainty that creative solutions are often most needed. Leaders will opt for slightly new ideas, but don’t go shouting “Earth revolves around the sun” on us or you’re bound to get shot down. “American culture worships creativity,” stated an article in The Atlantic in October 2014, “but mostly in the abstract.” In order to gain idea acceptance, the writer recommended that people “frame new ideas as old ideas—to make your creativity seem, well, not so creative.”1 Not bad advice for those suffering under the thumb of tone-deaf leadership, but not the advice of this book. As leaders, we must stop holding our people prisoner to the idea that they must present all thoughts and ideas the right way—that is, the way that keeps us feeling comfortable.

 

3: Feedback and Concerns

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There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting.

—BUDDHA

WHAT’S THE MOST DIFFI CULT “TRUTH” you’ve ever had to deliver to someone? Think about it for a moment before you read on. Whom did you have to talk to, and what did you need to tell him or her? Did you actually do it? How did you feel, physically and emotionally, before the conversation? How did you feel afterward?

Our guess is, whatever this conversation entailed, you tried to use the right words in the right way; maybe you even practiced beforehand or sought advice from a friend. But in the end, there may just not have been a “right” way to say it. Yet you said it anyway because it needed to be said. You likely hoped the recipient would trust your intent, hear the message, and simply move forward with the new (or added) perspective. A relationship may have been damaged, or maybe your message landed upon grateful ears. You might have felt relieved, appreciated, or horrified. You may have received a “Thank you for your courage,” or maybe you were fired.

 

4: Leaders Impede Communication

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We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.

MALALA YOUSAFZAI, I AM MALALA

GARY STASSER OF MIAMI (OHIO) UNIVERSITY conducted a seminal study on group communication based on a murder mystery scenario, titled The Case of the Fallen Businessman. Stasser discovered that open communication is difficult in small groups. People tend to share common knowledge but are afraid of looking foolish by voicing things only they know. Group members question themselves: If it’s relevant, why has no one else brought this up? We’ve created a condensed version of this case study to illustrate Stasser’s discoveries and to set the stage for further exploration into communication challenges.

The sun had just peeked over an eastern hill on a fall morning in 1992 when Eddie Sullivan pulled his rusty-red Ford truck into the carport on Bob Guion’s homestead. Sullivan served as Guion’s handyman, and he liked to start his work early to avoid the heat. This particular day, he was scheduled to tear down an eighty-year-old barn.

 

5: A Leader’s Power Suff ocates

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Personalities change when the President is present, and frequently even strong men make recommendations on the basis of what they believe the President wishes to hear.

—ROBERT F. KENNEDY, THIRTEEN DAYS

THE USS GREENVILLE is a Los Angeles–class, fast-attack nuclear submarine armed with Tomahawk missiles. Commissioned in 1994, it measures 363 feet and weighs 7,177 tons.* On February 9, 2001, the sub departed for standard maneuvers off the shores of Oahu as part of a “distinguished visitor cruise”—a program intended to provide influential civilians insight into navy operations. When the Greenville executed an emergency main ballast tank blow nine miles shy of port, a businessman occupied the helmsman chair and a sports reporter operated valve levers. Experienced crew members supervised these guests closely while Captain Scott Waddle delivered instructions. “Emergency” main ballast blow is something of a misnomer. The procedure is pretty standard. The crew brings the submarine to periscope depth (60 feet), sweeps the area above water for other ships, and then blows out its ballast tanks to surface rapidly. Emerging from the water, a Los Angeles–class submarine looks like a giant torpedo. On this day, the Greenville failed to complete its rapid surface. According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) official report:

 

6: People Fear Judgment

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How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.

—FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE

COLEMAN COUNTY SITS just under two hundred miles southwest of Dallas in the-middle-of-nowhere, Texas. On a scorching summer day in 1960-something, Jerry Harvey sat on his in-laws’ porch playing dominoes on a folding card table. The temperature peaked at 104 degrees. Only a small fan, periodic wind gusts, and some cold lemonade mitigated the heat. But Jerry was nonetheless enjoying his game of dominoes, occasionally looking down at his feet to see fine grains of dust blowing across the deck and disappearing between the gaps in the floorboards.

Jerry’s father-in-law cut into the peace of the Sunday afternoon by suggesting that the family take a trip to get some dinner in Abilene. “What? Go to Abilene?” Jerry thought to himself. He could hardly tolerate the idea of driving fifty-three miles back and forth in an un-air-conditioned Buick with his wife and in-laws. But before Jerry could grimace and furrow his brow, his wife chimed in: “Sounds like a great idea.”

 

7: Rejection Leads to Fatigue

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The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

COLIN POWELL, MY AMERICAN JOURNEY

SIR KEN ROBINSON’S BRILLIANT PRESENTATION titled How Schools Kill Creativity is the most watched TED talk of all time. Over forty million people have tuned in since he delivered it in 2006. Sir Ken makes an intriguing observation: “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not afraid of being wrong.” In the TED talk, Robinson speaks primarily about creativity, suggesting that corporations stigmatize mistakes. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong,” he argues, “you’ll never come up with anything original. . . . We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

A confident kindergartner might make a better officer of the deck than a culturally conditioned navy lieutenant. The hand would shoot up, the lips would purse, and the kid would let the captain have it: “We need to go higher with the periscope.” But kids become adults—adults with inhibitions, hesitations, and fears. As we grow up, or really as our hands get smacked time and again, we unlearn to say what we think and we stop sharing our ideas.

 

8: Assume Positive Intent

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If someone doesn’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how well you measure your words, the other person will misinterpret you. If someone trusts you implicitly, it doesn’t matter how poorly you phrase something, the other person will assume you meant well.

BRUCE BROWN, FOUNDER, PROACTIVE COACHING

FORGING A CULTURE OF CANDOR—one where people share their questions and uncertainties, their good and bad ideas, and their feedback and concerns—turns on one thing: positive intent. It is what holds everything else together—the center of gravity. You grant those you lead permission to speak freely under the condition that they say anything and everything for the good of the organization and those who are a part of it. This is an effect rather than a capability. We are not suggesting that people must be capable enough to have a positive impact; we are arguing that this must be their intent.

When Steven Hauschka suggested that the Seahawks not kick a field goal, it was requisite that he said so intending to help the team win the game.

 

9: Prove It’s Safe

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Vulnerability is not weakness. . . . Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.

—BRENÉ BROWN, TED TALK, MARCH 2012

DURING THE SUMMER after his junior year of college, Matt Kincaid decided to take on a College Pro Painters franchise in an attempt to earn more money than the measly $2,500 he had earned during previous summer jobs. He knew a guy who had earned $14,000 one summer doing this, which was plenty of incentive to give it a try. He learned the ins and outs of the business and hired nine college students to work for him, including his friend Seth. He’d known Seth since the eighth grade and trusted him immensely. Seth quickly became the foreman for one of the three crews.

All summer Matt did everything he could to stay a week or two ahead of his workers, providing estimates to anyone who would listen. He even paid cute college girls to knock on neighborhood doors, smile and flirt with whoever answered (hopefully a young guy), and solicit more estimates. When he wasn’t giving estimates, he was painting alongside his crews. He didn’t sleep much, regularly putting in fifteen-hour days, but running a business for the first time was exhilarating.

 

10: Dignify Every Try

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Great spirits have always experienced violent opposition from mediocre minds.

ALBERT EINSTEIN

BRUCE BROWN, who’s mentioned periodically throughout this book, has a cult following of fifty-year-old men and women who used to be in his PE classes at Hyak Junior High. That loyalty has spawned nearly five hundred thousand Facebook followers.* Bruce shares wisdom on team building, leadership, and shared commitment to core covenants. Retired from teaching and coaching, he now consults for the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles, NCAA champion soft ball and baseball programs, and businesses around the country. Coach Brown teaches, “If a mistake is made with carelessness, then take corrective action. But if someone makes a mistake with full effort and attention, find a way to dignify the mistake. The bigger the mistake, the more important it is to dignify it.”†

During summer 2002, Doug interned for the Seattle Supersonics in the basketball operations office.‡ There were only four or five of them there on a daily basis: the general manager; the head coach; a receptionist; and Doug’s boss, Rich

 

11: Be Genuinely Curious

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We don’t see the world as it is; we see it as we are.

ANAÏS NIN

REMEMBER BACK A FEW CHAPTERS AGO when we explored the topic of judgment and disapproval? None of us are all that good at judging others (especially their intentions). Let’s play a little game to reinforce the idea that our minds work in mysterious ways: please take out a piece of paper (or write in the margins of this book) and answer this question:

Is the tallest redwood tree more or less than 1,200 feet?

Next question:

What is the height of the tallest redwood?

Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman shares this experiment in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The question’s content is immaterial. It could be Gandhi’s age at his death, the depth of the Marianas Trench, or the length of the Nile River.* The peculiarity within the question involves the number reference: 1,200 feet in this case. When researchers asked groups of people if the height was more or less than 1,200 feet, their answers to the second question (the height of the tallest redwood) averaged 844 feet.

 

12: The Promised Land

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We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

—MAYA ANGELOU, RAINBOW IN THE CLOUD

BRUCE BROWN, THE LEGENDARY COACH AND TEACHER we’ve mentioned in this book, has built up a lifetime of wisdom cultivating cultures. He’s coached hundreds of athletic teams ranging from football to basketball to baseball to volleyball. His former players have gone on to play at Harvard and in the NBA, and to coach in the NFL.* Like a lot of gym teachers, he’s an unbeatable badminton player. One afternoon, about ten years into his education career, he was on his way to a volleyball practice with “bad day” written all over his face. It wasn’t a sad sort of bad day; for some reason Coach Brown was just ticked off and annoyed. Janelle, a setter on the team—and by no means the best payer—ran by Brown and patted him on the shoulder. She could sense her coach’s mood in the stiffness of his gait. His return greeting to her fell far short of his normal enthusiasm. So fourteen-year-old Janelle stopped on a dime, pirouetted, and looked her coach in the eye:

 

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