To thrive or not to thrive? That’s how we began our book, Thriving in Business and Life. Over the last year, while we have adapted the manuscript into our full immersion online learning game for leaders, this question has gained significance.
Thriving is a choice. Especially in challenging circumstances, choosing to thrive rather than just to survive initiates and/or strengthens a habit that makes all the difference in what happens next.
Here’s an example. You’re facilitating a brainstorming meeting. Someone who rarely speaks up ventures a comment. What they say doesn’t make much sense to you so you reflexively begin to move on. In other words, you dismiss what you just heard without comment.
It’s a habit. It’s a choice to survive – keep the meeting moving and finish on time.
What would a thriving choice look like?
You’d catch yourself and pause. “Interesting," you might say, leaning in with curiosity. "Tell me more about you're thinking.”
What does this accomplish?
The speaker may have a good idea and hasn’t articulated it well yet. This gives them another chance. Everyone else in the meeting witnesses you taking an interest in what was said. They may have dismissed it as well, especially if the one who spoke up isn’t someone who doesn’t pattern-map to a person they normally consider to be an idea generator. We’ve discuss this phenomenon at length in our chapter on implicit bias.
By making that thriving choice, however, you certainly encourage whoever ventured the comment, but you’re also building an environment of trust. In addition, you're repatterning your own thinking by forging new neural pathways that enable you to develop more inclusive habits. As you do so, you can bet that others in the room will feel more inclined to speak up from that moment forward.
Here’s another big plus to this type of simple shift:
You increase the odds of eliciting a truly Big Idea . . . one that solves a challenge or opens the door to new opportunities.
Big Ideas often sound a bit crazy when they first show up. But if you’ve created an environment where verbal risk taking is encouraged, those involved will be far more likely to get creative, perhaps even to get a little crazy. This can inject a spirit of fun and adventure into the process and, as most of us have experienced, the thrill of a great idea often emerges from the chaos of an uncensored brainstorming session.
This is the opposite of maintaining a group of “yes” men and women, poised to agree with everything their leader or supervisor suggests. It’s also the opposite of what happens in an adversarial environment where negativity greets every hint of innovation with a knee-jerk rejection.
Writing on the Harvard Business School website, Sarah Jane Gilbert reported that:
“Recent research from Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and her colleague, Professor James Detert from Penn State revealed that “changing a culture so that people believe speaking up is expected and desired is likely to require some fairly drastic indications of commitment to change. This would include placing individuals who are known to be open in key roles, illustrating in visible ways that voice is celebrated rather than punished, and making fundamental changes to how people get evaluated and rewarded.”
Let’s examine the three requirements they recommend:
Placing individuals who are known to be open in key roles. This makes a statement that the company itself encourages innovative dialogue. When team members know this, CYA tactics recede.
Illustrating in visible ways that voice is celebrated rather than punished. There are scores of incentives that can be provided to motivate inspired brainstorming, starting with immediate verbal acknowledgement. When you are praised in front of your peers for venturing a “weird” idea, that's rewarding enough to stimulate further risk taking.
Making fundamental changes to how people get evaluated and rewarded. Imagine a corporate culture where creative exploration and reasonable risk-taking is viewed as an important means of achieving excellence. How would it feel to know that you were being evaluated, not just for following orders and hitting your numbers, but also for the fact that you are contributing member of the company's innovative culture. That's the type of shift that turns employees into stakeholders.
Here’s your thriving challenge for the week:
The next time you find yourself engaged in a brainstorming session,
be deliberate about listening, asking questions, and teasing out innovation.
Encourage outlandish ideas, have fun, praise your colleagues,
take risks yourself, and notice how different the meeting feels.
You’re building a thriving culture.
Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson