Creating Fearless Engagement

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The bathroom. The hallway. The coffee machine.

What do these places have in common? These are the places where employees say they feel most comfortable telling the truth at work! REALLY? So no one actually tells the truth in the conference room, or at their desk, or in a meeting? Oh boy…what are we doing wrong?

Realism and truth-telling are at the heart of authentic engagement and change. The challenge is that people rarely tell each other the truth at work. And the higher you go in an organization, the rarer it becomes. As truth-telling declines, cost, bureaucracy, redundancies, and lack of confidence in the future all rise. The practice of embracing, honoring, and telling the truth may be the single most significant catalyst to personal and organizational change. So why don’t we tell each other the truth? Why do we find it hard to look in the mirror? Why do we seem to be protectors of what is rather than builders of what could be?

The first reason is because organizations have fundamentally forgotten that human beings work here. We have to remind ourselves that we’re dealing with people who have feelings and emotions. They have lives. They have dreams. They have aspirations. And things like truth and change can be scary.

The second reason is that fear is often the first feeling people have when they sense change is coming. There are eight common fears that people tend to experience. They seep into our mindset and act as voices in our heads that perpetuate limiting beliefs. As human beings, we don’t perform at our full potential; we perform at our belief level. In the face of change, fear and anxiety often conspire to drive those beliefs to lower levels.

The antidote to this nearing epidemic of truthlessness at organizational, team, and individual levels is finding a way to safely have the critical conversations that most of us don’t know how to have. These conversations create an environment where people can overcome fears, be vulnerable, and explore the truths with which we are creatively dissatisfied.

Creating Safe Havens for Change and Fearless Engagement

1. Use pictures.

Use visuals to capture relevance, humor, vulnerability, and accountability. Humor, cartoons, and visualizations of reality are catalysts and safety nets for having conversations that often feel too unsafe and uncomfortable to have. Think of the Dilbert empire. Dilbert is a master of using humor and relevance to spotlight workplace challenges that many people face but can’t tackle. Leaders need to make it safe to talk about the issues we don’t know how to talk about. By seeing the truth through humor, people are immediately and safely drawn into the conversation. They are validated when they see a picture that captures their feelings.

2. Be honest.

Leaders need to set the tone by being honest about the hard things. That vibe starts at the top – leaders have to own up to the behaviors they must personally change before anything can cascade down or across the organization. If they’re not willing to do that, then it’s not reasonable to expect that anything or anyone else can or will change.

3. Set behavioral ground rules.

The practice of creating explicit behavioral ground rules acts as a contracting process among team members so they can hold each other accountable and support each other in ensuring these behaviors embody the way they work together. Ground rules make it safe to tell the truth, be vulnerable, and focus on the issues rather than the people.

Sample Behavioral Ground Rules

  • Be mindful to assume positive intent.
  • In the face of conflicting data or concern, go directly to the individual without judgment.
  • Use dialogue instead of a lecture for collaborative problem solving.
  • Don’t allow backlash – either for vulnerability or positions taken.
  • Listen and be present in the dialogue.
  • Have no predetermined outcomes; be completely transparent on the agenda.
  • Pursue a deeper level of understanding rather than making quick, superficial judgments.
  • Make it okay to ask for help and be vulnerable.

When we see the truth of who and how we are, when we’re honest about the hardest parts of what we do, and when we create a framework for how we’re going to act, we set ourselves up for creating an environment where everyone can succeed in changing for the better. Visualizing the truth creates a safe conversation atmosphere to minimize people’s fears and maximize the speed and authenticity of conversations, decisions, and actions that stimulate strategic change. Truth-
telling is within reach, and fearless engagement is right behind it.

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