Real Leaders

7 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Courage, Not Fear

The last nine months have taken a toll on most of us. In your organization, chances are many employees are feeling more anxious than this time a year ago. Uncertainty and disruption do that. 

It’s why now more than ever, as people are forced to meet from behind screens without access to the regular tough points with colleagues, a chief role of leaders is to allay people’s fears and fuel their courage. This requires being extra intentional about the psychological barriers that keep people from collaborating across remote teams and bringing their boldest thinking to the challenges at hand. After all, it’s not where people are working that matters most. It’s how they’re working. 

Fostering a ‘culture of courage’ is mission-critical. Here are seven ways to do just that.

1. Lead by example… try to get it right, not be right 

When asked what courageous leadership looks like, Kate Johnson, (pictured above) President of $45 billion business Microsoft US, says, “When you see a person trying to get it right, instead of trying to be right.” As a leader, you are like an emotional barometer in your organization, providing ‘cues’ to everyone on how to respond and behave. If you show up as anxious, you’ll only stoke anxiety in others. So before you focus on strategies and processes, get your head and heart in the right space, and ground yourself in the values you want to define yourself as a leader. Employees understand that there’s a lot outside your control. Still, if they can see that you’re at least in control of yourself, it provides a form of psychological safety net that encourages them to be that bit braver than they might otherwise. 

Remember, your way of being speaks more loudly than your words. You lead by virtue of who you are, not what you do or say. Work to try to get it right, not be right. 

2. Reward non-conformity… make it safe for loyal dissent 

Research shows that high-performing teams are those where people feel safe to speak up – to challenge ‘how we do it around it and raise sensitive issues. Yet when weighing the pros and cons of dissenting from the consensus, people are wired for caution. If they fear the risk of social humiliation, much less being professionally penalized, they’ll almost certainly play it safe.  

Leaders who reward ‘loyal dissenters’ – those with the courage to ‘stick their neck out’ for the greater good – reduce collective fear and build the psychological safety needed for others to report, share and discuss what’s not working. After all, it’s the conversations that are not happening that often incur the steepest hidden tax on every measure that matters. 

3. Show you care… connect from the heart to the heart 

People do their best work when they feel appreciated for who they are, not just what they do. Not feeling that their boss doesn’t care about them is the number one reason good employees leave. 

Amid this challenging time, practicing empathy for what employees are dealing with is even more crucial. Prioritize regular one-on-one check-ins. Send them a personal message to acknowledge how hard people are working. Take the time to enquire how things are at home. Then listen. No agenda.  

Emotions drive behavior, not logic. Leaders need to be highly attuned to their organization’s emotional landscape if they’re to harness the ‘positive emotional contagion’ within their ranks. 

4. Destigmatize failure… and harness the value of ‘miss-steps’ 

No one starts out to fail. Yet unless people feel safe enough to risk making a mistake, they’ll only make small incremental changes, cautiously iterating on what’s already in place. This stifles innovation and deprives everyone of the learning required to build and retain an edge. 

study at the University of Exeter Business School found that leaders who back employees to back themselves build stronger performing teams. Removing the stigma of failure is essential to optimizing growth and adapting to change (pretty crucial right now.) So talk about failure, including your own, in ways that normalize it as necessary for meaningful progress. At weekly meetings, ask everyone to share how they’ve failed in the last week and what they learned in the process. Then celebrate the learning and talk about how you can apply it to other projects. 

5. Nurture belonging… ensure everyone feels valued

We all want to feel part of a tribe, valued and celebrated. As people have been forced to connect remotely, it’s left many feeling disconnected. So be deliberate in fostering a sense of inclusion. Invite everyone for their input. Ask open-ended questions. Nurture discussion. Then actively listen and acknowledge the value of what every-one has to share, particularly those who may feel most marginalized. Making people feel valued for who they are, not what they do, will build the psychological safety that is a key predictor of the highest performing teams. 

6. Delegate decision making… treat people as trust-worthy

People rise to the level of expectation others have of them. When you treat employees as trust-worthy – by extending decision-making authority or simply letting them get on with the job – most will go the extra mile to prove you right. On the flip side, when you micromanage or undermine decisions, you do the opposite. 

As you set priorities, manage accountability, allocate resources or communicate expectations, consider how you’d feel if your boss went about it as you are.  

Of course, when trust is broken, hold people to account. Nothing demoralizes a great employee faster than watching you tolerate a poor one. 

7. Rally your team… get behind a compelling mission 

In the midst of crisis, leaders have an opportunity to activate the ‘rally effect’ and build a shared sense of mission and solidarity. Don’t squander that opportunity. Ensure everyone is clear about what lies at stake if they don’t all pull together and what is possible if they do. Continually communicate your vision, share plans and ensure everyone knows their specific role in the larger scheme of your business and why their part matters.  

People are the number one asset in your company right now. Unlocking their full potential requires working every day to nurture the conditions for them to engage in courageous conversations, make better decisions, and do their best work. Small actions can make a bigger impact than grand gestures. Don’t underestimate them. 

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