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Thought-Bubble Bursters Make the Best Leaders

“Should I share my thoughts? I’m afraid he’ll get defensive.”

“I think I made a big mistake, but what’s the use of bringing it up?”

“I can’t believe she did that again! It makes us look bad.”

In today’s work climate, many teams suffer from a malady they’re not even aware of: Thought-Bubble Syndrome. TBS (a shady cousin of Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is the tendency of team members to think, but not share, critical thoughts. Gallup discovered that only 30% of employees strongly believe their voice matters at work. Other studies show that 85% of workers report feeling unable to raise an issue or concern with their bosses, even when they believe the issue is important.

As a leader, how do you cure TBS?

Create a bubble-bursting environment!

Research shows that TBS can be cured by creating an environment where people feel like they belong and are safe to take interpersonal risks. Teams that feel safe to share concerns, admit mistakes, and give feedback tend to out-perform, out-innovate, and out-learn those that are less psychologically safe.

At NextArrow, building on the important research of Amy Edmonson, Adam Grant, and many others, we talk about four key SAFE skills leaders must develop to unlock the crucial and critical thoughts of their team.

  • State the why

  • Ask (a lot of) questions

  • Frame failures

  • Enable feedback

State the why:

Stating the why is about communicating the importance of being vocal to the success of the team. In the knowledge economy, most work environments are characterized by complexity, interdependence, uncertainty, and change. This means co-workers need to actually co-work: collaborate, problem solve, and respond to unexpected challenges. If team members are afraid to share ideas and concerns, or feel that doing so is futile, the success of the team will be at risk. People need to know that speaking up is part of their job.

Stating the why is also about connecting work to something greater, like goals or a mission. It’s about telling people that by being vocal they’re helping the org inch closer to its stated purpose. Communicating this is not a one-time shot, but rather an ongoing process to be done early and often: during interviews, onboarding, 1-1s, and team meetings.

For example, at Ochsner Health, a chain of hospitals, every meeting begins with a story about a patient. The story may be one of success or failure, but the message is clear: we’re engaged in work worth doing and we need everyone to focus and contribute to what matters most. Research shows that linking action to something greater than self is one of the most powerful ways to generate courage. This is how you get people to speak up.

Ask (a lot of) Questions:

Asking (a lot of) questions, and defaulting into a mode of attentive curiosity, creates a climate of psychological safety that elicits team members’ thoughts. That’s because asking genuine questions signifies both humility and respect. On the hand it says, “I don’t have all the answers,” while on the other it says, “I think your perspective is important.”

If you want people to open up, it’s also helpful to frame your question to signify humility:

  • Instead of asking “What do you think?,” preface the question with, “I might be missing something. What’s your take?”

  • Instead of, “What’s another perspective?,” you could say, “I’m sure I have some blind spots here. What’s another way of looking at it?”

Sometimes, leaders are afraid to ask questions because they believe it signals weakness. Yet, as Confucious once said, "The person who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The person who does not ask is a fool for life." And you can avoid looking like a fool for a minute by simply qualifying your questions:

  • “I have a few thoughts about X, but I’d love to hear from you first. [Insert questions].”

  • “I’m curious to learn more. [Insert questions].”

  • “Since I benefit from your perspectives, [insert question].”

Frame failures:

Framing failures by creating an open orientation toward mistakes, research shows, is one of the hallmarks of psychologically safe teams. Such teams are able to extract the lessons from failures and not let bad practices and processes continually exact their costs.

Creating an open orientation toward failure begins at the top. Leaders need to have the courage to admit mistakes and help others extract lessons from failures. As Navy Seal Team 6 Commander Dave Cooper put it: “The most important words a leader can say are, ‘I screwed that up.’”

Being open about our fallibility is so powerful because it models to others how to deal with failure intelligently. The key is to both admit the failure and extract the lessons.

Leaders can also normalize failure by baking it into the fabric of their work culture:

  • In interviews, ask people questions like: “How have you handled mistakes in the past?” and “What are your best failures?”

  • While onboarding employees, say: “Here is how we approach mistakes and failures on our team.” (NASA, for example, shares a compendium called “Flight Rules,” which is a collection of missteps, disasters, and lessons learned.

  • In 1-1s, say: “I want to give you feedback on how you handled this mistake."

  • In team meetings, say: “I know we didn’t get our desired output, but let’s see what we can learn from the inputs.”

Some leaders go as far as ritualizing and celebrating intelligent failures.

  • Gray and P&G, for example, both provide annual ‘Heroic Failure’ awards to the individuals and teams who took the greatest ‘intelligent’ risk at the company.

  • At X Development, LLC (formerly Google X), when a team kills their own project for good reason, they often get a failure bonus.

  • Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly used to throw "failure parties" to commemorate excellent scientific work that resulted in failure.

All these practices are designed to make failures less lonely and more instructive.

Enable feedback:

Enabling feedback means creating a robust feedback culture. Doing so creates conditions for learning, growth, and even more resilient relationships within the team.

For years, the main advice for leaders has been to ask for feedback. Yet, recent research points in new directions. Studies show that instead of asking for feedback, leaders should ask for advice because it elicits more developmental, critical, and actionable data. As Shane Parrish, CEO of Syrus Partners, recently tweeted, “Asking for feedback creates a critic. Asking for advice creates a partner.”

Another study, recently published by Constantinos Coutifaris and Adam M. Grant demonstrated that psychological safety is increased in the long term when leaders, instead of asking for feedback, share with their team critical feedback they’ve been getting on their own developmental areas. Doing so leads to greater vulnerability on the part of the team (sharing their own shortcomings and areas of development) and more feedback-sharing with the leader.

And there you have it! By developing these key SAFE skills, you can engineer a bubble-bursting environment where your employees summon the courage to speak their minds.

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