a big mistake leaders make when answering questions

A Big Mistake Leaders Make When Answering Questions

The wind shifted, the mainsail swung over the boat, and the deck leaned until I found myself staring at water where the horizon used to be. It looked like we were all going to get wet – but I was actually about to receive a leadership lesson in answering questions.

The skipper called out instructions: “David trim the jib … more tension!”

I grabbed the winch handle and began to crank clockwise, hoping to feel tension.


The line moved, but I wasn’t sure if it was enough.

I cranked it the other direction, looked back at Patrick, our skipper, and asked, “Which way should I turn it?”

Patrick’s next words were a powerful leadership moment – but he didn’t answer my question.

At least, not the one I had put into words.

What’s the Real Question?

You might wonder what I was doing controlling tension on the sail when I wasn’t sure how to do it. Hadn’t I been trained?

The answer is yes, but …

I had the privilege of sailing in the San Diego Harbor with several of my colleagues, including our skipper, Patrick Maurer.

Before we left shore Patrick oriented us to the sailboat, explained the vocabulary, gave us instructions and ran us through the roles we could play.  I sat next to the winch that managed tension on the front sail (the jib).

Before we left the dock, he was very clear about how everything operated … especially the winch.

He’d even spelled out the answer to the question I would ask later as the boat leaned precariously: you could turn the winch in either direction.

So I “knew” I could turn it either way–what was it I really wanted to know?

With the boat leaning and seven other passengers counting on me to tighten that line, what I really wanted to know is the same thing your team members often want to know when you’re answering questions:

  • “Am I doing this right?”
  • “Am I going to be okay?”
  • “What do you really want from me?”

Answering Questions

When your team comes to you and asks, “What should I do?” they’re often asking something much deeper. The big mistake leaders make when answering questions is that they answer the immediate question without looking at what’s beneath it.

That’s a mistake because the deeper question reveals an opportunity for your team members to grow. Answer that deeper question and you will build confidence in your people, grow their skills, and free up more of your time.

But if you only answer the question they ask, you can undermine their confidence, keep them dependent on you, and find yourself answering questions all day long with no time for your own work.

Don’t give the answer they want and neglect the answer they need.

If you’re like many leaders, when a team member asks a question for which you know they’ve received training, it can be frustrating.

You might think, “They know this! Why are they wasting my time?”

I would invite you to look a little deeper. In a very short time, you can give them what they need and grow a stronger, more productive team member.

How to Answer the Right Question

When I looked back over my shoulder and asked, “Which way should I turn it?” Patrick calmly, but firmly, answered back, “You can turn it either direction. One way is easier, one way is faster.”

Notice something?

He didn’t answer the question I asked …

I wanted something straightforward: right or left … just tell me!

But he didn’t. Instead, he used a leadership coaching technique called “reducing ambiguity.”

He gave me information that I could use to make my own decision.

(Given that we were tipping over and I was looking down at the water, I chose the ‘faster but harder’ option.)

His words answered my underlying question: “What do you want me to do?” while also giving me the ability to make that decision for myself next time.

From now on, Patrick could spend his time on other aspects of running the sailboat.

And there was something else …

Besides the words he spoke, there was the way he spoke them. Calm. Firm.

His tone answered my other underlying questions: Am I going to be okay? Am I doing this right?

His tone said, “Yes.”

What does your tone say to your team?

Your Turn

When you’re answering questions, spend enough time to figure out what they really need. How do you make sure your team gets answers to their real questions?

You might also like:

9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own

The Best Way to Help Employees Have More Confidence

Photos by Craig Price

7 questions to ask yourself to be a better leader

7 Questions to Ask Yourself to Be a Better Leader

To be a better leader, start with you.

When we work with leaders, the first questions we ask usually produce a pause, followed by a thoughtful, “That’s a great question.” If you want to be a better leader, you can use these same questions to examine your motivations and focus your work. Your influence starts with how you lead yourself. Reflecting on your answers to these seven questions will give you a strong foundation to influence others:

1) What do I really want?

When priorities multiply and you’re reactively running around, stop and clarify the M.I.T.  What is the Most Important Thing that you can achieve right now? In the middle of a leadership crisis, nothing provides clarity like this question.

Asking “what do I really want”  helps cut through drama and confusion. What do you want to happen because of your leadership in this situation? Sometimes you’ll find that you’ve been acting from an entirely different set of motivations than what it is you want deep down, where it matters. Many leaders sacrifice influence because they try to be “right” – to prove something, but underneath all that,  what they want is to be effective and accomplish the mission.

2) What are my values and personal mission?

Self-leadership strengthens when you know your own values and understand your purpose—what matters to you, what makes your heart sing when you are most alive. When you work from this energy, it’s naturally attractive to like-minded team members and you motivate almost without knowing it. If you haven’t done this work, it can be worth finding a coach or mentor to help you explore what matters most.

3) Am I choosing problems or trying to avoid problems?

Solving problems is central to meaningful leadership, but many leaders fall into a trap of trying to avoid problems. You don’t get to choose whether you’ll have problems, but often you DO get to choose which set of problems you’ll have. Effective leaders don’t waste time and emotional energy trying to avoid problems. Rather, they put their energy into working on the right set of problems—the ones that get them closer to their vision.

For leaders, it’s not IF problems, but WHICH problems.

For example:

  • Do you want the discomfort of learning how to address poor performance or do you want the discomfort of a team with poor morale and worse results?
  • Do you prefer the pain of changing your strategy or the pain of discovering your team is no longer relevant?

4) Am I willing to pay the cost to be a better leader?

In question #1, you looked at what you really want.

Now it’s time to look at the cost.

When you work to be a better leader and change things, it will include risk, discomfort, being misunderstood, and sacrificing other goals. Are you willing to accept the consequences of pursuing your vision? If not, you can’t possibly expect your team to come along with you.

5) Am I working for my team or myself?

Time to take a hard look in the mirror. No one will truly know the answer to this one but you.

When your decisions are in your heart and your head before you’ve given them a voice, do you filter them through what’s best for you – or best for your team? Are you saying “I”… or “we”?

It’s okay to include your own well-being in your decisions (you are one of the team after all!) But you won’t have influence if your team isn’t at the center of your leadership decisions.

6) How can I achieve the results I want to see?

We love this one because it puts you in the driver’s seat.

When you find yourself frustrated at circumstances, upset that people “just don’t get it”, or discouraged that things didn’t go as you hoped, you’ve got a choice:

Bemoan the unfairness of the universe (which inspires no one) or look at the situation and see where you can take action. Just asking the question completely reframes the situation and can transform a gloomy attitude in seconds.

7) Are my people better off because of their time with me?

This is a critical question if you want to be a better leader and have more influence. When people know that you care about them, that you help them grow, and that they’re more capable, they’ll follow you.

If the answer is yes, keep going. If the answer is no, examine the reasons.

Do you need to improve your skills? Do you need to wrestle with the earlier questions we listed?

Your Turn

We’ve used these 7 questions regularly to help us adjust and refocus when our leadership feels dull or confused.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share: What questions do you use to lead yourself and maintain your influence?

The Best Way to Help Employees Have More Confidence

The Best Way To Help Employees Have More Confidence

A few years ago, I wrote an article for Success Magazine, called 7 Ways to Build Your Employees Confidence. Highlights include:

  • Start with a foundation of deep respect.
  • Be specific about what they are doing well.
  • Give them an opportunity to teach others.
  • Scaffold behaviors as they learn.
  • Celebrate incremental achievements.
  • Encourage them through mistakes and setbacks.
  • And, my favorite, help them to fully prepare.

“Nothing builds confidence more than being the ‘smartest’ guy in the room. The truth is, nine times out of ten, the ‘smartest’ guy in the room is really the most prepared. Let them know that and ensure they do their homework by role playing the scenarios they’re most likely to face. The next time it will be easier.”

These seven ideas are foundational for building confidence. And now, after several years of working with leaders around the world to have more confidence and influence, I realize there’s another vital element to consider: Navigating the tricky “Because I’m a _______” mindset.

Start Here to Build Confidence

We were teaching the  I.N.S.P.I.R.E. model for having tough conversations during a Winning Well program. when “Jana” raised her hand.

“So can you talk about how to use this technique if you are a woman?”

What a fascinating question—particularly since I (a woman) was leading this particular part of the program. I was demonstrating how to give feedback to David (a man).

Our approach teaches managers to help the employee they are coaching to reflect and find their own path to change the behavior that’s reducing their effectiveness. This technique should work as well (if not better) for a woman as for a man.  We’ve been using it for years and have taught many women and men who are using it successfully. The short answer to her question is, “There’s no reason to modify this because you’re a woman. It should work just fine.”

But I also knew her question was more complicated.

What I heard in her question was an unspoken, underlying concern:

“How do I have a tough feedback conversation if I’m not sure I can pull it off?”

My mind immediately raced to all the times I’ve seen managers (more women than men) apologize for the feedback they were about to give.  Or ending their feedback phrases with an intonation that sounds more like a question, “This behavior is unacceptable?” And the myriad of ways people sabotage their influence with pre-apologies, “This is probably a dumb idea.” All behaviors triggered by a lack of confidence which undermines their influence and results.

So here’s where it gets really tricky. It’s certainly possible that Jana is dealing with a complicated circumstance where having a tough conversation is more difficult because she’s a woman. I’ve certainly had times in my career that felt like that.

It’s also quite possible that Jana is telling herself a self-perpetuating story that difficult conversations are always harder because she’s a woman, which diminishes her confidence, and impacts the way she’s showing up. When she shows up unsure, her influence diminishes and reinforces her deeply held belief that it’s harder because she’s a woman. It’s hard to know.

So if you have a Jana on your team, how do you help?

Digging Deeper

Of course, we all need to be on a vigilant lookout for discrimination, micro-aggressions, bullying and other toxic behaviors that hold people back, destroy confidence and diminish their contribution. That crap is real, and it’s hard to know if someone is experiencing it now or has scar tissues from the past. If they tell you those stories, believe them and do everything you can to help them find a healthy way forward.

What also breaks my heart, and is even more frequent, is when people let one or two bad experiences over-shadow all the positive ones and reach the conclusion that they won’t be successful  at something “Because they’re _______ (a woman, a white man, a person of color, fat, short …),” and that lack of confidence makes that story true. I see it all the time.

And many managers back away from this conversation — for fear of aggravating the situation. Or label them “a victim,” and write them off as low-potential. So the employee stays stuck in a tragic story of lost potential.

Questions to Help Build Confidence and See a Broader Picture

The best way I’ve found to help employees who are stuck in a limiting “Because I’m a ____” story, is to ask some provocative open-ended questions framed in the spirit of Appreciatiive Inquiry to help them view the situation more broadly.

For example:

  • Tell me about a time you were really effective at _______ (insert area where they are lacking confidence). What was the circumstance? How did it turn out? What did you notice about yourself in that situation?
  • Awesome. Can you think of another time? And another time?  What do notice about yourself in all of these situations? How can you bring more of that behavior or approach the next time?
  • Who are the ______ (insert the affinity group they think makes this hard, e.g. women) who you see doing this particularly well? What do you notice about their behavior that makes them so successful?
  • Tell me about the next time you think you will have a chance to do ________ (insert area they are lacking confidence)? What would success look like in that interaction? What’s one behavior you could do that would make that success more likely?
  • Now imagine you’ve been successful in that interaction. What do you notice about yourself? How does that feel?

In our current environment, it’s easy to shy away from these conversations—and of course, they can only be held in the context of deep trust. But, it’s a tragedy to avoid them. Please don’t let one or two failed attempts discourage you from trying again. We need more people in the world navigating these conversations well to grow more confident leaders, using their gifts, to make a greater impact.

how to lead for results and stop the zombie apocalypse

How to Lead for Results and Stop the Zombie Apocalypse

Lead for results and keep the zombies at bay…

They’re the phrases that should send a shiver up your spine if you want to lead for results. I’ve heard them from team members in every industry imaginable. You might recognize them:

  • “I’ve just stopped trying.”
  • “Why bother?”
  • “I give up.”
  • “Just go along to get along.”
  • “When someone bothers to tell me what to do, then we’ll worry about it.”
  • “What’s the point?”
  • “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
  • “They don’t care, so why should I?”
  • “Everything they say from the stage don’t mean anything for me and my life.”

Walking Dead

Every time I hear one of these, I shudder.

These are the words whispered by the walking dead – maybe they haven’t left your team or company yet, but there’s no life left in them. They’re just shuffling through the day, going through the motions, like zombies.

If you have people in your team or organization talking this way, one of two things has happened:

1) You have discouraged your team by failing to lead.

2) You have a very negative team member who will be discouraging the rest of the team. (And they’re still there because you’ve failed to lead.)

Either way, it’s time for you to lead. Every person wandering around …

thinking that their effort makes no difference …

feeling that no one cares …

feeling frustrated and refusing to take responsibility …

Has quit.

They’re a walking tragedy of vital human life stunted and withering away. (Not to mention tons of lost productivity for the organization.)

Tough Love

If you want to lead for results, I applaud you. We desperately need good leaders.

But leadership means responsibility. If you have disheartened people on your team who have stopped trying, that’s on you. The reasons are usually straightforward:

  • a lack of encouragement or appreciation
  • outright hostility and abuse
  • no vision
  • absurd systems prevent them from being effective
  • no autonomy or ability to make meaningful decisions
  • they don’t trust you or one another

These are a leader’s responsibilities. And if you’re leading, you’re responsible.

Lead for Results

As every reader of Winning Well knows, you can treat people well and lead for results. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go together.

When people:

  • are empowered to make meaningful decisions …
  • understand the purpose behind what they’re doing …
  • trust their leadership and their team …
  • feel appreciated for what they do …
  • feel they’re making a difference …
  • are held accountable for their contribution …

They own the outcomes, are energized, proactively solve problems, and personally invest in what they’re doing.

Which team member would you rather have?

Where to Begin?

1) If you are leading a team that shows signs of the zombi-fication, honestly assess your motivations.

Are you leading for results and relationships?

If not, I invite you to start small. Pick one area—perhaps encouragement—and honestly show appreciation. Or maybe start by removing a frustrating system that prevents people from doing their best work.

The point is, don’t change everything all at once. You can’t do it and you’ll frustrate yourself. Start small.

If you’re not sure where to start and you have any team members you can trust to give you honest feedback, ask them. Or do a DIY 360 evaluation and pick just one thing—the most frequently occurring item and address it.

People are remarkably graceful. When they see you work on being effective, your credibility soars.

2) If you are in an organization characterized by the zombies, build a cultural oasis.

Start by encouraging the people you see every day. Recognize others for what they’ve done. Begin talking about what your team might accomplish or where it could be. Look for problems you can solve.

We Need You to Lead for Results

Whatever your formal role, we need you to lead. We need people who dare to dream, who show us the way. We need people who will take risks to solve problems that others refuse to recognize even exist.

We need people who ask the right questions, who challenge our thinking. We need people who inspire us, who motivate us, and who encourage us.

We need leaders.

We need you.

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween from Let's Grow Leaders (lead for results and keep the zombies away)

How to Stop Sarcasm at Work

How to Stop the Destructive Power of Sarcasm at Work

An audience member asked us recently, “Can you talk about the danger of sarcasm? Our VP uses it all the time. It ruins presentations, derails meetings, and shuts people down.”

We thought, “We know that guy.” We bet you do too.

Sure, a quick wit used well can energize the team and lighten the load. But a sarcastic remark meant to belittle those who don’t dare fight back diminishes confidence, degrades trust, and leaves folks looking for the nearest escape route.

Why is sarcasm so rampant in the workplace? Why would a manager demean someone they’re trying to “motivate?”

Why Sarcasm is So Dangerous

  1. It creates shame in the target.  People will do almost anything to feel good about themselves. If you shame a person when you have positional power, you have put them in a difficult “fight or flight” position.
  2. You get the opposite of what you want. A very skilled self-aware person might come and talk to you about it, but otherwise, they’ll find another way to “get even”—perhaps they resort to similar “humor” behind your back, undermine you, or reduce their work effort.
  3. You give permission for everyone to do it. Before long, your clever comeback has turned into a caustic workplace where negativity reigns. (At the extreme, this can even cause human resource problems with hostile work environments.)
  4. It doesn’t build anything. You might make someone stop doing something by being sarcastic and shaming them, but you’ll never create a new positive behavior this way.
  5. You limit creativity. Consistent sarcasm creates an atmosphere where no one will try a new idea. The risk of failure and incurring shame is too great.
  6. It drains energy. We do our best work when we’re in “the zone”—feeling competent, challenged, and ready to do our best. Sarcasm and humor at another person’s expense create doubt and negative energy.
  7. It destroys trust.  Your team needs to know you have their best interests at heart. Even if you do, sarcasm makes them wonder.

How to Be Effective and Funny

  1. Start with results: When you’re tempted to use sarcasm, stop and ask yourself what you really want. What results do you look for? Encourage, inspire, teach, coach, show…these are always more effective than sarcasm.
  2. Address issues directly: Never use humor to deal with behavior or performance problems. As we’ve seen, it creates more problems and does nothing to help the situation. Address these issues directly and professionally.
  3. Use humor effectively: Any comedian can tell you that there is always one safe target to make fun of: you. Self-effacing humor displays humility and tells your people that you don’t feel you’re better than they are and that you don’t take yourself too seriously. It builds trust because people know you own your problems and understand your own shortcomings.
  4. Deal with your Own junk: If you’re carrying around hurt or insecurity and regularly mask it with sarcasm or making fun of others, take some time to reflect on what’s going on there—maybe work with a coach. If it’s deep, talk with a counselor.
  5. Clean-up: If you have potentially hurt others in the past, apologize, and make it right.

We love to laugh and we need far more of it—but if you’re a manager or seeking to influence others, avoid sarcasm or making fun of anyone (except yourself) and watch your credibility grow.

See Also: Sarcasm vs. Humor in the Workplace

How Your Leadership Style Could Be Stifling Innovation and Problem Solving (Entrepreneur)

An easy way to check on your culture

An Easy Way to Check on Your Culture

Check your culture by looking at shared resources.

Is there anything grosser than a neglected break-room microwave oven? If Marvel needs another super-villain, I’d recommend someone spawned from the splatter of last night’s warmed up spaghetti and powered by the fumes of artificially butter-flavored popcorn. Perhaps your break-room microwaves won’t spawn any super-villains – but they are a great place to check your culture.

If you haven’t seen yours in a while, take a look. If you don’t have a microwave, check the refrigerator…or the bathrooms (preferably near the end of the workday).

What did you find?

Microwaves Matter

We share these spaces. Everyone can use them. But…who is responsible for them?

Too often, the answer is “no one.” Over time, it shows. People rush between meetings or for a hurried lunch and something spatters or spills…

and it’s left for the next person.

Even if your organization hires someone to clean these shared spaces each night, take a look near the end of the day. What you find tells you a great deal about the culture of an organization.

A clean microwave tells you people care about one another.

Why Microwaves are a Place to Check Your Culture

In 1968 Garret Hardin studied the phenomenon of the abused shared space. He wrote about farmers overgrazing a shared field and titled his work “the tragedy of the commons“. You’re certainly familiar with it: each person maximizes their own benefit (they save time by leaving their mess in the microwave or increase revenue by grazing their sheep too often).

And we’re also familiar with the consequences: the microwave becomes so disgusting that no one can use it, or the field’s soil is depleted, it dies, and no one can graze sheep at all.

The best thing about the microwave or shared field?  These are solvable problems—it just takes leadership.

Waiting for a Hero

Shared spaces are a perfect leadership laboratory. The only way to resolve the tragedy of the commons (or break-room microwave) is for someone to take responsibility and influence others to change their behavior.

Someone has to:

  • Recognize the problem – people maximizing short-term benefit that leads to loss of the shared resource
  • Take personal responsibility for it
  • Make people aware of the problem
  • Come up with solutions
  • Influence everyone to take part in those solutions – and this means people change their behavior. They give up their short-term self-interest (sacrificing a few minutes to clean up after themselves or sacrificing money to graze sheep less often).

This is much easier in organizational culture with shared values of responsibility, respect, and supporting one another.

When Was the Last Time?

If you want to cultivate a culture of shared responsibility, it starts with you.

CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner, made a point of picking up trash when in the parks. Keeping the park spotless was everyone’s responsibility – in action, not just in word. I’m not suggesting a CEO should spend all their time picking up trash – there are other vital tasks they should attend to.

But if you want shared ownership in your team, model it. When was the last time you picked up some trash, wiped out the microwave, or made a new pot of coffee? These things take seconds but speak loudly.

Lead Where You Are

If you are not in a positional leadership role, shared resources are one of your greatest opportunities. Look for areas or services in your organization that everyone needs, but are in disarray because no one owns them.

Take responsibility. Clean it, organize it, create a system to share the service…whatever it is, get others involved. Meetings are a great shared space to practice your leadership. You can be the one to ask who owns the decision and the one to ask who’s doing what, by when, and check on the follow-up. You don’t need a title to lead…and shared resources give you a huge opportunity to show and practice your leadership.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share: How do you influence others to take care of shared resources? Why do you think some organizations seem to have an easier time keeping their microwaves clean?

How to Lead When Your Team Resists Change

How to Lead When Your Team Resists Change

When Your Team Resists Change, It’s an Opportunity for Ownership

You’ve noticed a problem, spent the last four days meeting with finance, strategizing, and building an action plan. You’re energized about what your team will achieve, your boss and peers are on board, and it’s time to meet with your team to roll out the new process. You share the details, all the benefits, and next steps. But it feels like your team resists change.

Your enthusiasm is met with quiet reluctance. Then your team brings up three different operational challenges and two reasons your customers won’t like it. Why can’t they understand the benefit and just move forward?

4 Things to Do When Your Team Resists Change

The resistance to change frustrates many leaders, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, the resistance you feel often means there’s an opportunity to create buy-in and ownership that will help you build a courageous culture (download your free courageous cultures white paper here). Here’s how to do it:

1) Avoid Labels

It’s easy to label people who raise objections. But they’re not necessarily lazy, stuck, negative, or even “resistant” (despite the title of this article).

Rather, they’re normal and human. Resisting change actually makes a lot of sense. After all, if what you did yesterday worked–it got you through the day, alive, fed, and healthy—why spend energy to do something differently? That’s a waste of time—unless there’s a good reason.

2) Start with the Problem

If you’re like most leaders, when you see a problem, you move to solutions as quickly as you can. Then you go to your team with a solution. It’s natural, but when you do this, you deprive your team of the understanding and connection that helped you arrive at the answer you’ve brought them.

Without that same connection, of course they won’t feel the same way you do. One way to solve this challenge is to start the conversation with your team by identifying the problem.

Eg: “I was looking at the numbers and we’re seeing a steady decline in re-enrollment.”

Then pause, let the issue sink in. If you have a team of introverts, give them time to think about the issue.

3) Ask for Their Thoughts

Once you’ve shared the problem and given them a moment to reflect. Ask for their thoughts. This helps anchor the problem in their thinking. They explore the consequences and how it interacts with other issues.

Change always starts with desire or dissatisfaction. By introducing the problem and letting it sink in, you’re creating the same emotional connection that helped you move to action.

When your why is bigger than your won’t, you will.

4) Ask for Their Solutions

As the team discusses the issue, they are likely to start asking about solutions.

When someone says, “What do you think we should do?” Resist the urge to answer. Instead, continue to ask for their ideas. They may come up with ideas you haven’t considered—or they may arrive at the same solution you’ve thought through.

But now there’s a crucial difference: they own it.

And if they can’t come up with any reasonable solutions, your ideas now have a hungry audience.

At this point you can move into decision-making mode: establish what a successful solution will achieve, determine who will make the decision, discuss, decide, and act.

Final Thoughts

It may feel like this process takes extra time—and it does. It’s 15 or 30 minutes of time that prevents days, weeks, and even months of procrastination and foot-dragging. The team owns the problem and the solution. They’ve connected to the why and are ready for action.

This small investment of time overcomes some common reasons people resist change. A few notes:

1) If you suspect an individual is resisting because they will lose something (status, money, comfort) you will need to address that separately. Maybe there is a bigger “why” available that makes the trade-off worth it. Or, it may be an unavoidable consequence of a changing world. Don’t overlook these personal losses – they are real and if left unaddressed, make you look inhuman.

2) Sometimes you need to move quickly. The more you connect with your team and connect them to the why behind the change, the more buy-in you’ll have for the times you need to say “trust me and we’ll discuss it later.”

Your Turn

We’d love to hear from you – what’s your best practice to help teams navigate change?

How to help all your people contribute great ideas

How to Help All Your People Contribute Great Ideas

Don’t Let Assumptions Limit People Who Can Contribute Great Ideas

“I’m looking at my people and I just don’t think they can get there from here.” Vivian was a gung-ho CEO exploring what it would take to build a more Courageous Culture (click to download your free white paper). She loved the idea of eliminating FOSU (fear of speaking up) and encouraging more micro-innovation and problem-solving, but as she mentally inventoried her team, she was concerned that not everyone could contribute great ideas and engage energetically.

Problem-solving and innovation certainly come easier for some than others, but it’s easy to make assumptions and miss people’s energy and potential. There are quieter voices you can amplify and embryonic ideas to nurture. The key is to give them the leadership they need to become effective team members.

How to Help Everyone Contribute Their Great Ideas

As you learn how different people are wired and what energizes them, you can meet them where they are to draw greatness from them. Let’s look at several types of people that present a challenge for leaders who want to build courageous cultures.

Silent Wounded

They don’t trust you—and with good reason. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong. It’s the three managers who came before you who abused their trust, told them they weren’t hired to think, stole their idea, and then took credit for it. Now you have the same title and, fairly or not, all the negative baggage that comes with it.

Your job is to rebuild their trust. This will take time, but once you’ve built that trust, these team members are often very loyal. Start small. Ask a courageous question and receive the answers graciously and with gratitude. Build up to deeper questions and focus on responding well. Celebrate people, generously give credit, then ask for more problem solving and ideas to better serve your customers.

Silent Ponderous

To draw out the great value silent ponderous people can contribute, start by giving them time to think. For some meetings, this means giving them the main topic a day or two in advance and asking them to think about it. In some settings having everyone write their ideas first will give them time to process.

Another strategy is to clarify that you’re not asking for a 100% accurate answer. When you ask them for their best thinking at the moment or a range of ideas, it gives them permission to explore, rather than commit to something they haven’t thought through yet.

Just Do What I Sayers or Let Me Do My Thingers

You may have team members who are certain of their direction and methods. They’re often successful and just want people to line up behind them and do what they’re told.

When you talk with people in this group, it can help to frame the conversation in terms of their goals. If they want to have more responsibility or more influence, those are easy opportunities to talk about the people-skills they need to practice and demonstrate.

If they want to improve their outcomes, they’ll need people and their ideas. Two points you can emphasize in these conversations are: 1) What success looks like in this organization—is everyone thinking and contributing? 2) You care about their career and want them to succeed–and that’s why you’re having this conversation.

Just Tell Me What to Doers

There are a couple of types of people who consistently just want to be told what to do. The first group is the silent wounded described above. They have a “You won’t fool me again” mantra. As with other silent wounded, take time to rebuild trust with small steps that prove you mean what you say.

The second group of people who want you to “Just tell me what to do” are doing what they know has made them successful in the past. Through much of school and in many organizations, you can get along quite well by just following instructions. The challenge for these people is the same as for organizations everywhere: the world is changing and computers are far more efficient at being told what to do.

First, have a discussion about the changing nature of work and what it will take for your business to thrive. Next, reframe what success looks like for their role. In effect, you are still answering their need to “be told what to do” but in a way that asks them to consider the opportunities and problems facing the organization. Finally, equip them with the ability to contribute great ideas.

Idea Grenadiers

Some people are idea-machines–their brain works overtime to see the possibilities in every situation. Nearly every team is better off with someone who can creatively look at what’s happening and see opportunities to improve or transform. The challenge comes when the idea-person tosses all their ideas in your lap, wants you to do them, but won’t do the work. These are the idea-grenadiers—tossing their ideas like grenades and then running the other direction.

When you’re working with someone like this, it helps to have a direct conversation that calls them back to what matters most and asks them to engage. For example:

“I’ve noticed that in the past month you come to me with four different ideas about how we should improve security, revamp the training program, change our workforce management, and reorganize product management. There is merit in your ideas—and we can’t pursue all of them right now. Which of them do you think would help achieve our #1 strategic priority? Is that a project you’d be willing to help with?”


Most organizations have a schmoozer—everyone likes them and they talk a great game, but when it comes time to get things done, somehow, they never implement that plan that sounded so amazing when they presented it.

The challenge is that they undermine trust. Ideas they share lack credibility and they’re less likely to be entrusted with good ideas because they won’t implement them.

The best strategy with schmoozers is to ignore the charm and focus on the results. Healthy accountability conversations that help them raise their game will help restore their credibility. When you talk with them, be ready for an elegantly worded explanation for why they didn’t get it done. If it happens again, you need to escalate the conversation.

For example: “This is the third time we’ve had this conversation. Your credibility is at stake. What you said sounded wonderful, but if you can’t implement it, your team can’t rely on you and neither can I. What can we do to get this on track and completed?”

Oxygen Suckers

The final challenging type is the person who sucks all the air out of the room. They often talk so much, so loud, or so vehemently that others don’t contribute. Oxygen suckers can spark drama that derails a healthy conversation and wastes time on tangents. Oxygen suckers often lack self-awareness and don’t recognize how their behavior affects others. It’s up to you to facilitate in a way that allows everyone to contribute great ideas.

To help your oxygen suckers, start with a direct conversation. Privately explain that you will run meetings differently and that your goal is to make sure everyone takes part equitably. Be specific about how you’ll do this. For example: “In some cases, I will time people’s comments to ensure everyone has time to speak. I may ask you to speak after I’ve asked some quieter team members for their perspective.”

With these challenging types, your approach and the conversations give them a chance to take part. Some people will choose not to—and that’s okay.

If someone tells you they can’t perform at the needed level or they don’t want to adjust their style, thank them for their honesty, honor their choice, and help them with their exit strategy. Either way, you’ve energized your team to contribute great ideas and are on your way to a courageous culture.

Your turn. What’s your best strategy for encouraging your team members to contribute their best ideas?

how to prepare for a better development discussion

How to Prepare for a Better Development Discussion (Free Tool)

Development discussions always go better when your employee comes prepared to engage in conversation. We’ve designed this guide to help your team members think more deeply about their development goals and key actions. Give it to them in advance and ask them to bring it with them to ground your development discussion.

You can download the PDF here.

Use this Development Discussion Planner to help your employees prepare

Ask your employee to reflect on both their current and desired future roles and answer the following questions.

What strengths would you like to leverage and grow?

Leveraging strengths is a great way to start the discussion. How can you test and build upon these strengths across a variety of contexts? Once the discussion moves to action planning, think about ways you can pair up your team members to help one another.

In what strategic relationships would you like to invest?

Often the most important work to get ready for the next level or a strategic lateral move involves building more influential relationships. Encourage your employees to think about where they need to invest in relationships for their current role, as well as future roles. Who can help champion, sponsor, prepare for, and give them a taste of their desired future?

What challenges are you looking to overcome?

This is an important calibration point. You want to know if they know what’s holding them back. Much better to start with their perspective before adding yours.

What skills would you like to learn or improve?

Our training clients often tell us that they are often surprised by the answer to this question. Giving your employee some time to think about this in advance will lead to a meatier list.

What support do you need?

Ask your employee to come with a specific “ask.” This helps overcome the two most frequent answers to this question, “I don’t know” and “I haven’t thought about it.”

Your turn. What questions would you add?

See Also:

How to Get Employees Jazzed About Their Professional Development (Fast Company)

how to lead in a caustic culture

How to Lead in a Caustic Culture

To lead in a caustic culture, focus on your influence.

It’s a question we hear after every keynote we deliver: “I want to build a Courageous Culture, but I don’t know if it will work at my company. It’s not a healthy place and the people I report to aren’t interested in doing things well or better. How do I lead in such a caustic culture?”

Download the Inspiring Innovation Courageous Cultures white paper

By the way – this question isn’t limited to frontline leaders or middle-level managers. We’ve also heard it from CEOs who feel that their Board of Directors insists on negative or ineffective strategies.

Reclaim Your Power

You can’t lead well when you feel like a victim. It saps your energy and your team will sense the lack of confidence. When you’re stuck wishing things we’re different, you can’t create positive change.

I’ve been there—and it stinks. Your leader is in a bad mood and starts giving you directives you know aren’t healthy. If you pass that negativity and anger to your team, you’ll crush motivation and innovation. But they’re the boss, right?

Not exactly.

To quickly shift out of feeling like a victim, you’ve got to reclaim your power. There are two quick ways to do this. First, remember that you are in full control of yourself. Your boss or Board don’t choose how you act, how you treat your people, or what kind of culture you create.

That choice belongs to you.

They can set the goals and they may define a frustrating process you must follow – but how you engage with the people around is always your choice. I think of it as if I’m a lightning rod. Take the harsh energy you receive and dissipate it into the ground. Pass on the goals, objectives, and healthy outcomes.

The second step to reclaim your power is to ask yourself this question:  “How can I?” eg:

How can I…

  • “treat my people with respect and dignity as we implement this?”
  • “call my team back to our values and help us to be our best selves?”
  • “advocate for better systems and solutions?”

These “How can I” questions help you reclaim your power because they focus on activities that you can do. Notice the question isn’t “How can I get my boss to change?” Instead, the focus is on you—what can you do right now?

If it feels overwhelming, find the smallest next step. Taking action, even a small action, to be the leader you want to be will help you reclaim your power and stop feeling like a victim.

Build a Cultural Oasis

Once you’ve reclaimed your power, it’s time to build something positive. When you lead in a caustic culture, one of the most important actions you can take is to build a cultural oasis.

In the desert, an oasis is a place of nourishment and peace. You can drink, rest, and resupply for your journey.

Think of your team or your circle of influence as that oasis in the desert of your overall culture. When people interact with you and your team, how can they come away refreshed? How will they experience respect, be seen, and treated with dignity?

Find the Others

Sometimes building a cultural oasis is not about overcoming a caustic culture, but finding ways to build and expand pockets of excellence. In a recent Leadership Without Losing Your Soul podcast episode, I interviewed Jamie Marsden. He wanted to enhance their high-performance results-focused culture and give leaders the tools they needed to also invest more deeply in human relationships.

Over time he and his team have built a voluntary grassroots community of practice filled with managers from across the company who are committed to healthy people management. When I asked him for his best piece of advice for a leader who has an idea like his and wants to create change, his advice simply:

“Find the others.”

I love that—as you build your cultural oasis, find the others. Who can you connect with who is committed to Winning Well and building a Courageous Culture? Share what you’re doing, support one another, and expand your oasis.

Find the others—inside your organization. In your community. Online and across the world. Many leaders around the world are committed to leading well. You’re not alone.

Your Turn: How to Lead in a Caustic Culture

I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share: When you’ve experienced a caustic culture, how did you lead well and build a cultural oasis for your people?

How to Help Your Team Bring You Better Ideas

How to Help Your Team Bring You Better Ideas

You don’t just want ideas—you want GOOD ideas. There’s no time for half-baked solutions to trivial problems. But if you stop listening, they’ll stop sharing, and you’ll miss the good ones.

How you respond to incomplete, off-base, or inelegant ideas makes all the difference in whether or not you’ll get the contributions you do need the next time. Several executives, when they heard about our research on Courageous Cultures and FOSU (fear of speaking up), told us “Oh, that’s not our issue. Our problem is these damn millennials can’t stop speaking up. They complain about everything.”

“And do you listen?” we ask.

“Some of the time, but after a while, you can only take so much.”

Which begs the question: What happens next after you’re tired and they’re ignored? It’s only a matter of time before they stop trying or find someplace else to work that will listen.

It’s worth the time investment to help your team know a good idea when they see one and to learn how to vet it for viability.

This simple tool works wonders.

4 Questions to Help Your Team Vet Their Ideas

In our research, 40% of the participants said they don’t feel confident to share their ideas and 45% say they haven’t been trained to think critically or solve problems.

If you want better ideas, help your employees know what differentiates a good idea by giving them a few criteria. Tell your team you’re looking for interesting, doable, engaging actions.


Why is this idea interesting? What strategic problem does it solve? How will results improve from this idea (e.g. customer experience, employee retention, efficiency)?

D- Doable

Is this idea something we could actually do? How would we make it happen? What would make it easier or more difficult?

E- Engaging

Who would we need to engage to make this happen? Why should they support it? Where are we most likely to meet resistance?


What are the most important actions needed to try this? How would we start?

See Also: Entrepreneur: Have a Killer Business Idea? Here’s How to Vet It

The problem with just do your job

The Problem with Just Do Your Job

Have you ever had a team member say something like this? “I just want to do my job. I know you want me to care, but I don’t. It’s a paycheck and I’ve got kids.”

Or perhaps you’ve heard a leader tell their people, “It’s not that hard – just do your job.”

These expressions are two sides of the same coin and are a major challenge for leaders who want to build a courageous culture.

I feel for the employee who says “Just let me do my job.” I’ve been there. As a teenager digging ditches in the summer heat or scrubbing down gas pumps, trying to save money for college, I wasn’t thinking about the customer or how we could run a more effective business. I focused on getting my work done and hanging out with friends that night. There are roles and seasons where that’s the reality.

I also empathize with those frustrated managers. I’ve been that leader who felt irritation at an employee for over-complicating or avoiding a straightforward task. It’s normal to feel like telling them “Just do your job.”

Two Problems with “Just Do Your Job”

Both feelings are normal and they happen to the best employees and the best leaders at some point. However, you don’t want to stay there. There are three problems with “just do your job” that will limit your leadership and cripple your results.

Problem #1: Work you can “just do” is going away.

Routine, predictable, structured work is being automated. Technology is commoditizing many products and services, and easy jobs are going away. Robots and digital agents powered by Artificial Intelligence will continue to displace blue and white-collar jobs.

This is a challenge for employers and employees. When so much is automated and quality service or products are the prices of admission, how do you differentiate your business from your competition?


The secret to surviving and thriving in the automation revolution is in what computers can’t replace:  human creativity, empathy, and critical thinking, especially in unpredictable environments. Leading in the automation revolution isn’t about what you can control; it’s about what you can create and contribute.

For team members: we all have those days where we’re doing well to show up. But if showing up is all we do, every day, a computer will show up faster, cheaper, and more accurately. To create and contribute start by engaging with your customer. Think about the work you do and the way you do it. What have you learned? How can it be better for you, your team, your customer, and your organization?

For leaders: you can help your team move from just showing up to creation and contribution by regularly asking for their ideas, bringing them problems or opportunities and discussing them together, asking courageous questions, and then take action on what you learn. Over time, this combination of curiosity and implementation will build momentum.

For the latest research about building Courageous Cultures, download our new Inspiring Innovation Whitepaper

Problem #2: Success takes a team.

The second problem with a “just do your job” mentality is that you won’t get the micro-innovations, solutions, and ideas that allow your team to transform their results. Any work that you can’t outsource to artificial intelligence and computers will improve with multiple perspectives and diverse thinking. Even in small companies, the specialization of skills and different talents in your team of three or four people mean you’ll benefit if you can draw out everyone’s best thinking.


For team members: What perspective do you bring that will help your team be more effective? When will you share it? What experience does your colleague have? How do they see things differently than you do? When will ask for their perspective?

For leaders: If you’re not already consistently asking for ideas and solutions, it’s time to start. If you’re asking, but not hearing as much input as you’d like, look at how you ask.

When you’re talking with a team member who is struggling and “just wants to do their job,” start with empathy then shift to what’s possible. For example:

“I hear you—I’ve been there too. And it’s going to take more than just showing up for us to succeed. I don’t just want to show up for you—and I know we can do more than just show up for our customers. I also hope we can create the best experience for you and your team. I see what you’re capable of doing and I’d love to hear your ideas as you have them.”

Your Turn

When you build a dynamic culture that leverages humanity to solve problems, respond to customers, and adapt to change, you build a strong foundation to survive—and thrive—in the automation revolution.

Leave us a comment and share your best technique to help team members move from “just do your job” to creation and contribution.