I’m a perfectionist and it can be hard to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and write something. Take this blog, for example: I’m thrilled to have finally made the commitment to undertake this ongoing open letter because I’ve been procrastinating about doing so for years. Apparently, there are more than 74 million blogs out there and quite directly, as much as I believe that I have something to say to all of you, it can be intimidating to think about the vast sea of bloggers populated by so many original thinkers, creative writers and true authorities on “you name it.” When I walk into a bookstore, which is one of my truly favorite places, I am humbled by the same overwhelming sense that there are so many prolific contributions from virtually every form of literature. How could I possibly thread the needle of originality?
If you’re a perfectionist, too, and you get frozen over wanting to be perfect or at least original, it’s important to keep in mind the pragmatic reality so elegantly expressed by Voltaire: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” It’s true, and if you want to put yourself in position to do something great, you have to do something. Holding back with perfect thoughts that are never shared is the most imperfect behavior of all.
Managers have to work hard to foster that environment of courage and experimentation for their teams. As a leader, my goal is to create an environment in which there is never fear of speaking up and speaking out. I can tell you that I’ve had my mind changed more times than I can count because I created a safe, empowered environment, and my colleagues and employees felt comfortable contradicting me if their opinions differed from mine. I have to watch myself because my passionate expression of my own ideas, my love of debate and my reputation for taking stands on what I feel are principled issues can inadvertently work at cross purposes with nurturing a culture of forthrightness and the free exchange of ideas.
The aim is to create an environment that encourages egalitarian, judgment-free brainstorming in which all employees, regardless of rank, feel empowered to share their ideas without thinking that they first have to perfect their pitches. To do so, you need to employ a mix of simple tactics and savvy leadership.
First, communicate your “rules of engagement” to the entire company. It’s about creating a culture of acceptance for minority points of view, and recognizing and praising employees anytime they have the courage to speak up about a so-called sacred cow, or a high-risk, high-reward proposition. Post signs on conference room walls to serve as physical reminders of your company’s values. Remind officers, directors and managers to encourage all team members to contribute.
Second, regulate your company’s approach to the discussion of ideas in meetings. One of my strong beliefs is that the language that we use predicts or actually leads to outcomes. One theory around this dynamic is called “performative” language. I believe that this is particularly crucial in shaping a culture in which the courage and freedom to speak up is truly meant to be egalitarian. I must admit that I really dislike “go along to get along” behavior in the name of teamwork and collegiality. Disagreement can and should be civil and respectful, but people should be encouraged to voice that disagreement. I strongly discourage the use of phrases such as, “I don’t disagree” in meetings. Either you agree, or you don’t. It is fundamental to an environment of empowerment that we know where people stand on the matters of importance to the enterprise. The goal should be to “convince or be convinced.”
Third, lead by example. Leaders, starting with the CEO, have to be invitational and welcoming in their style. Banish behaviors that might deter lower-ranking employees from approaching you. Be friendly, seek your staff’s opinions and thank them for their contributions. During meetings, try using a Socratic style of leadership, asking follow-up, iterative questions that encourage employees to dive deeper into their ideas.
After all, a great idea can’t be great if it never sees the light of day. Let’s put sunlight on thought leadership, innovation and originality together.
Russ Klein, CEO