Effective leaders create the psychologically safe environments that empower teams to speak freely. But who creates the spaces where leaders feel safe to share the quiet internal voice that whispers truths to them? Who gives them confidence to speak their little voices, to be authentic and to call out things as they see them? Sadly, the answer is no one. Leaders need to show bravery and step away from safety in order to say and do what’s necessary to fulfil a true commitment. Truly great leaders are authentic and keep nothing back; that means actively putting themselves at risk to fully deliver on commitments.
Watching Margret Heffernan’s wonderful Ted talk on wilful blindness again last week I was reminded of a term we use in our consulting sessions: withholding. We are all guilty of withholding – choosing not to say what we really think and keeping some part of our authentic selves hidden from colleagues. In many ways our identities are defined as much by what we choose not to say as what we do say. We may hold back out of fear or concern over what people will think of us. We may feel the time is not right, or that it won’t make any difference. It’s a perfectly natural and understandable human trait deeply rooted in our need to belong and our survival instincts.
It is so deep seated that in most groups it breeds a ‘conspiracy of inauthenticity.’ Individuals recognise when their colleagues are not being true to their inner voices but know that neither are they. Both parties tacitly agree not to call the other out. Each withholds some part of themselves from full commitment and turns a blind eye to the withholding of others.
At best this leads to those sterile meetings where issues are passed around like hot potatoes with no-one willing to fully grasp them and provide authentic responses. At worst it creates cultures of wilful blindness in which critical information is deliberately and collectively overlooked as detailed in Heffernan’s shocking examples.
What is clear is that, whilst important, it is not enough for leaders to just create psychological safety for their teams. Lowering the barriers to honest, transparent and open discussion is essential for any high-performance team. But great leaders go further. They are prepared to hold nothing back in their commitment to their vision. This means being entirely authentic and admitting that they don’t have all the answers.
Although great leaders are often viewed as having great egos, they also share an almost selfless willingness to sacrifice their own identity to the delivery of the futures they have declared. They are willing to look weak and unsure if that means getting the best ideas, best people and best outcomes in pursuit of the goal. In a subsequent blog I’ll look in more depth at what putting it all at stake means, but for now, what are the benefits of leaders withholding nothing?
First, undoubtedly it will be bracing. Exposing your true self in pursuit of a declared goal takes real commitment. This is the first test of authenticity – if you don’t really believe in the potential future you are trying to create then you will always keep something back.
Total honesty and authenticity will attract criticism. Leaders are inextricably linked to the commitments they make – concerns with one can spill over into criticism of the other. Expressing doubts, sharing unanswered questions, and highlighting unfortunate information that seemingly does not fit with the goal; all can misread as weakness by some.
But, crucially, by withholding nothing leaders proactively encourage others’ commitment to overcoming breakdowns and co-creating solutions that deliver the vision. The emotional energy required to hold nothing back inspires others. It not only reinforces psychologically safe environments but provides a radical model of what calling out issues and concerns, bravely and honestly can deliver.
A leader who withholds nothing will also be better able to engage in generous listening. Listening from outside their own context, so that they hear what is really being said, not what fits with their own inner voice. As teams understand that they in turn are really listened to, they will be encouraged to speak their little voices, the usually repressed niggling concerns and doubts. This open, authentic debate creates a virtuous cycle that quickly overcomes breakdowns and generates better ideas, stronger solutions and more effective approaches that deliver shared goals.
Teams, ideas and progress are all enhanced by open and honest discussion. When people freely speak their little voices commitment and results improve. Creating a context of psychological safety is the first step in allowing this to happen, but the best leaders go further. Leading from the front they demonstrate what withholding nothing means and provide the model for others. It’s brave and it can be brutal, but the results are deeply aligned and committed teams that deliver stand out results. Holding nothing back can deliver everything.
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