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Daring Leaders Build Trust by Peeling Away the Armor, Choosing Courage Over Comfort

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How can I build trust, quickly, across my team? That’s the #1 question I get from my clients and students. Before I read Brené Brown’s  brilliant new book, Dare to Lead, I would have hedged, insisting that there are too many variables to give just one answer. But now I realize there is one answer that seems to apply universally: Rumble with vulnerability and embrace the suck.

Let me explain. When Brown surveyed senior leaders to find out what  most most needs to change for today’s leadership to be successful in a rapidly-changing, complex environment, the answer was nearly unanimous: braver leaders and more courageous cultures. But, she wondered, what does a brave leader act and sound like, and what makes a culture courageous?

In this edition of Communique, I have drawn from some of Brown’s ideas about the qualities, attributes, skills and actions that lie at the heart of truly daring leadership. A key premise: Being courageous requires that we make ourselves vulnerable, which is one of the fastest ways to build trust. When working in a virtual world, especially when we have limited nonverbal cues to give and get feedback, leaders have to work hard to find ways of conveying their thoughts and feelings in a way that feels authentic.

Here are just a few tips drawn from Brown’s book, which can work for any leader looking to build trust and credibility across their teams, regardless of where they’re located.

  • Dive headlong into the messy middle. By tiptoeing around the real issues to avoid confrontation or minimize problems, we’re just prolonging the inevitable, and may also be losing credibility along the way. Model what a necessary, difficult conversation can sound like by naming the problem head-on, and acknowledging that this conversation won’t be easy. Gain agreement on ground rules ahead of time (e.g., listen with same passion with which we want to be heard, show up with an open heart and a curious mind, assume best intentions, etc.), and ask for everyone’s help in enforcing them, rather than making it only the leader’s job. For Brown, “Let’s rumble” means “let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s going to be tough.”
  • Ditch the armor. The biggest barrier to daring leadership is the armor we carry around – the thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, mannerisms and feelings – that make it almost impossible for us to show our real selves and express our true feelings. With our armor firmly in place, we can more easily resist new ways of being, thinking and doing, and we subtly (or overtly) encourage others to follow suit. By removing our armor, we signal that this is an environment where it’s safe to say what’s on your mind and be yourself. Let people know that it’s okay to take that armor off, at least once in a while.
  • Build trust in layers and over small moments. You can’t expect people to suddenly trust everything you do if you help them out only occasionally, or throw praise their way every now and then. You earn peoples’ trust over time, often in the small moments, where you empathize over their misfortunes, acknowledge your vulnerabilities, make space for their voice when everyone is interrupting, ask how their day is going, demonstrate curiosity about their work and their lives, or offer your time to work through challenges you notice they’re struggling with. According to Brown, trust is created by stacking and layering small moments of reciprocal vulnerability over time. Trust and vulnerability grow together, and to betray one is to destroy both.
  • Create a safe container for conversation. By giving voice to unsaid emotions or naming unspoken fears or concerns, you are helping to create psychological safety, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who sees it as an essential condition for building trust across teams. Ask team members what conditions must be met for them to feel open and safe when having this conversation. (Examples: The absence of judgement. Respectful listening. Curiosity. Confidentiality. Willingness to admit mistakes.) Then, as a team, invite questions or concerns and encourage people to state their assumptions. This can be done by asking people to write down their responses in a shared space (anonymous or attributed), or volunteering responses out loud, after a moment of quiet reflection.
  • Ask your team how you can best support them, and press for details. It’s not enough to vaguely reassure your team that you’re there to help when needed. Ask them, specifically, what support from you looks like. While the responses may vary from person to person, ask the team as a whole, at least to begin. This can help to galvanize the team, and it will also give you a sense for recurring themes and can help determine where you most need to spend your time and energy for the collective good of your team.  For example, you might ask: What decisions do we need to make sooner rather than later? What stories have you heard that you want to check out? Are you hearing rumblings that you want me to validate, or lay to rest? Do we need to reset our team’s priorities? Can I help identify   or secure additional resources? Do I need to back off on some of my requests? Ask them first, and be prepared with probing questions if they’re reticent to speak.
  • Clarity is kindness. Unclear is unkind. This is especially true for virtual teams, where people have limited opportunities to make sure everyone understands things the same way. For example, if the collective work of the team is suffering because a few team members have fallen short of my expectations, as a leader, I could seethe in silence or mutter passive-aggressive remarks to signal my displeasure. (This would be a lot easier than having the needed conversations, but it would do nothing to help remedy the situation, and would almost certainly breed distrust.) Or, I could restate our agreed-upon goals, clarify my expectations, indicate specifically where their work fell short and why, and then work with them to find ways to get back on track. Holding people accountable for the quality of their work can be a great motivator in helping them to achieve peak performance. But first you have to make sure that your expectations of them, and theirs of you, are clear. Don’t force people to have to read your mind.
  • Use permission slips. Brown asks each person to write down at least one thing they give themselves permission to do or feel at the start of every team meeting before sharing out loud. (For a virtual team, this can be written in a shared space or on a piece of paper.) Examples: I give myself permission: not to overshare my knowledge, even though I think people could learn a lot from me; to take whatever time I need to make a decision; to refrain from checking my mobile device outside of break time; or, to voice my dissent, even if I am the only one. By using permission slips, team members tend to be more open and intentional in their behavior, without making promises.
  • Cultivate commitment and shared purpose through a TASC list. Just because someone on your team agrees to take on a task, it doesn’t mean s/he has the authority or resources to get it done. Brown and her team use a TASC list, where T= Who owns the task?, A = Do they have authority to be held accountable?, S = Are they set up for success (time, resources, clarity, etc.), and C = What is the checklist of what needs to happen, by whom, to accomplish this task? Another helpful technique Brown’s team uses: Have people describe in detail what “done” looks like. For example, if I ask team members to nominate people for a recognition award by a certain date, am I looking for just a name, a description of what they did that was special, the impact it had on their organization or bottom-line, etc.? For virtual teams in particular, where achieving alignment can be so elusive, make sure everyone has the same understanding of “done.”
  • Spend time attending to fears and feelings, or spend time managing difficult behavior. It’s your choice.  No one I know actually enjoys those tough conversations where you seek to discover what’s causing team members to shut down, disengage, or renege on commitments. To make them less painful and more productive, ask questions designed to elicit responses that shed light on the situation, rather than putting someone on the defensive. Leave long pauses to allow the other a chance to reflect and formulate a response.  Show you’re curious and attentive by asking relevant follow-up questions. While we can’t take responsibility for another’ person’s emotions, we can set boundaries to make the conversation a healthier one, says Brown. For example, you can let someone know that you understand she’s frustrated, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to interrupt others. Or you can acknowledge that you realize he’s disappointed, but it’s not okay to yell..
You can’t learn to be a daring leader simply by reading a book or a few articles, watching some videos, attending a class, or observing someone you admire in action once or twice. “Easy” learning alone doesn’t build strong skills. According to Mary Slaughter and David Rock writing for Fast Company, learning needs to be effortful, or have a “desirable difficulty.” To become a daring leader, you have to practice vulnerability and demonstrate courage in ways big and small, every day. This can be hard and uncomfortable no matter how often we work at it. But in the end, there’s no easy, once-and-done way for leaders to create the kind of trusting relationships that lead to shared success without making themselves vulnerable and demonstrating courage.

 

Links

Brene Brown’s website, where you can find a treasure trove of articles and resources, including this (free) Daring Leadership Assessment. You can order her books directly from her site or from your favorite bookseller.