There’s a big difference between playing it safe and making it safe – leaders are responsible for both

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The last couple of weeks have been interesting to say the least, although they always are because I never fail to be impressed or surprised.

In this time I have conversed with many managers who have shared how much they would like their people to be achieving more and I’ve spoken with people at lower levels in the same companies who also express their desire to contribute more. In summary, managers would like their people to take more initiative and risk, and so would their people but neither group feel safe in doing so.

There is a difference in playing it safe and being safe. Playing it safe means the prevailing culture is unsafe for people to feel they can take initiative because so many mangers today are still quick to castigate those who make mistakes or fail, and the managers are slow to forgive. Feeling and being safe is completely different. Here is my first tip for managers: everyday your role is to create the safe conditions that make it easy for your people to their best work; that means taking risk, trying and failing, experimenting and succeeding, because only then will we see innovation and contributions to continuous improvement. Be willing to lengthen the learning curve. This is particularly true when people are doing something they have never done before.

Here are some other thoughts for managers to consider if you want to encourage rather than stifle people’s contribution in a safe environment:

  • Set clear expectations and limits. Don’t be vague; when a manager says “we are going to reduce costs in 2017”, what can people do with this? It’s too broad. Get focused, set specific goals and clear expectations, boundaries and accountability.
  • Foster options thinking. So many managers are very set in their ways and have intractable assumptions about the ways things need to be done. I remember many moons ago having a conversation with our creative director when I had the privilege of leading a great advertising agency in Adelaide. She used to say that for every problem or opportunity there are between eight and fifteen viable options in terms of solutions. What’s more she said “most people give up at three”.
  • Let people experiment cheaply. Don’t bet the farm but allow people to try things and succeed or fail, they will learn a heck of a lot more from both having to think critically and figure something out rather simply being given a series of steps to follow, many of which they probably don’t agree with. Reward clever success and failure, not just clever success. It is only by capturing and applying the learning from both that we develop better practices.
  • Unleash the willing minority. Being willing to experiment and to take calculated risk is not a process; it’s based in attitude and reflected in behaviour. When you see people willing to take on a challenge, to experiment, set them free…they are your pioneers who mark the trail to make easy for others to follow.

To reinforce my earlier point, none of this will happen unless managers are willing to shape and build a culture where people feel safe to both succeed and fail. A safe environment needs to be encouraged, nurtured and protected. And, as you learn, use that learning to push your people to go further, you’ll be surprised how they respond.

Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.