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COURAGE GOES TO WORKHow to Build Backbones, Boost Performance, and Get Results
By BILL TREASURER
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2008 Bill Treasurer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLook Before You Leap
The most dangerous strategy is to jump into a chasm in two leaps. Benjamin Disraeli
Dustin Webster was scared; that much was clear. It was unusual to see him this way. Dustin is the kind of employee that a supervisor dreams of. A real go-getter, Dustin always got to work on time (often early), undeterred by the Seattle traffic and unfazed by Seattle's soggy mariner weather. With Dustin, such things never prompted grousing or pessimism. He had more important things on his mind, like pitching in, helping out, and getting the job done. So seeing Dustin scared, really scared, was way out of pattern.
Looking back on it now, I'm sure Dustin's fear had something to do with the nature of the task. For Dustin, this was a pioneering endeavor. While he had plenty of skills to draw upon, and he had confronted plenty of other work challenges, this assignment went well beyond Dustin's comfort zone and into foreign terrain.
Firsts often provoke fear. I'm sure that Dustin had felt the same fearful feelings on his first day of school, or the first time he drove a car, or the first time he kissed a girl. These feelings were also at work the first time he led one of our team meetings, or the time I tapped him to be in charge when I got called out of town to temporarily lead another project.
Because I was Dustin's manager, my job was to help him temper his fear so that he could focus on the task at hand. I had to keep his potential at the forefront of my thinking. In a real way, I had to believe in Dustin's potential more than he believed in it himself. While his own doubt was inevitable, I would have to keep mine at bay lest we double the doubt, and in so doing, double the chances of Dustin failing. And failure, in this case, could have catastrophic consequences.
Yes, Dustin was scared, and he had a right to be. In a moment, he would attempt a triple twisting back double somersault after leaping backward from a tiny platform more than one hundred feet above the surface of a small pool. He'd be traveling at a velocity of over fifty miles per hour, a breakneck speed that could quite literally break his neck. Dustin and I were members of the U.S. High Diving Team.
Surprisingly, the things Dustin did to prepare for his big leap, and the things I did to coach him through it, were little different from the things workers and managers need to do to help them stop being comfeartable. The big leap that Dustin was facing was a huge feat, but it wasn't entirely outside the realm of his experience. The dive was just the next logical step in the progression of his skills and capabilities, and the culmination of lead-ups—less complex dives from lower heights—that he had taken over time. Plus, we had spent weeks preparing for this moment, building his confidence in a way that, metaphorically, lowered his high dive. Dustin first practiced doing takeoffs from the pool deck. Then we had him adjust the movable high-dive platform (called a perch) to ten feet above the water. Once he got comfortable with his takeoff from that height, we had him move it up twenty more feet. The process involved purposely moving from comfort to discomfort and back again. Once he got comfortable with one height, we'd stretch the height to a point of discomfort until the new height became comfortable, too. Each time Dustin got comfortable again, it was time for him to move up ... we both knew the dangers of his becoming too comfortable!
My job in all of this was to be Dustin's chief encourager—literally, to help put courage in him. That meant I had to keep both of us focused on what Dustin had already done and what he was capable of doing. It would have done no good for me to stand on the pool deck yelling up to him about all the things he shouldn't do. Yelling "Don't do this!" and "Don't do that!" would have kept him looking in the wrong direction. Instead, my coaching centered on the things he should do to make the dive happen.
Keep in mind that as the captain of the team, I had a vested interest in Dustin's succeeding. This was the U.S. High Diving Team's first year at the Seattle amusement park. If Dustin landed the dive, he would be one of a handful of people in the world to have done so, a distinction that would impress our audiences—and our amusement park client. It would look very good for me if our client would re-sign our multimillion-dollar contract at the end of the season, and Dustin's big dive could go a long way toward making that happen. Dustin's win would be my win, too. Indeed, the team's win.
Despite all the preparation and encouragement, Dustin was still scared. Even though down deep he knew he was ready, doing such a complicated dive from this height wasn't going to come easy. The funny thing is, after I had cheered him on from the sidelines with little success, getting Dustin to launch the dive into the air took only a simple poolside coaxing technique, a method you'll probably remember from the first time you were cajoled off the high diving board at your local pool. Looking up at Dustin, I formed a bullhorn with my hands and yelled, "Okay, Dustin, it's time. Put your arms out to the sides. On the count of three, you're going to get this dive off the platform. All you have to do is get the dive in the air and let it do the work. The dive wants to dive. Ready? One ... two ... three ... JUMP!"
And with that, Dustin leaped into the air, performing a gorgeous triple twisting back double somersault!
Workplace High Dives
Dustin Webster would go on to become a seven-time world cliff diving champion, even beating the Mexicans in Acapulco on their home cliffs. At first glance, his experience learning a triple twisting back double off a hundred-foot high-dive ladder may seem remote from your work environment. The reality, though, is that throughout their careers, workers are asked to perform "high dives" that carry both upside and downside consequences. Asking a worker to move into a new role in a new division is a high dive. Putting a worker in charge of a key customer account is a high dive. Having a worker give a presentation to your boss's management team is a high dive. Putting a worker in charge of your team while you go on maternity leave is a high dive. Informing a worker that she is one of three people being considered as your successor is a high dive. One person's triple twisting back double somersault is another's must-win sale, or do-or-die project, or failure-is-not-an-option strategic initiative. High dives come in many forms, including skill-stretching jobs, big consequential assignments, and sweeping organizational changes. In each case, when employees face such challenges confidently and courageously, a positive outcome is more likely than if they don't. In each case, a positive outcome is mutually beneficial to them, to you, and to the company. And in each case, the best way to get them to do their high dive is to get them to move beyond comfort and fear.
As a former member of the U.S. High Diving Team, I learned firsthand the benefits of moving past my comfeartable tendencies. Every day for seven years I would climb to the top of a hundred-foot high-dive ladder (the equivalent of a ten-story building) and stand atop a one-foot-by-one-foot perch. Then, after a quick prayer, I would leap into the air like an eagle taking flight. Except eagles soar upward. I never did. I would always go down, careening at speeds of over fifty miles per hour into a pool that was only ten feet deep. Fifteen hundred high dives, all done with no parachute, no bungee, and no safety gear. Just me, a thin coat of sunscreen, and a Speedo.
The fact that I was a high diver doesn't qualify me to write about courage. The fact that I was a high diver who is afraid of heights does. Becoming a high diver was a culmination of a series of things I did to engage with, learn from, and ultimately dominate my fear of heights. Many of the lessons I learned from this experience are chronicled in my first book, Right Risk: 10 Powerful Principles for Taking Giant Leaps with Your Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003). The book's front cover has a picture of me diving while on fire. No kidding.
The experience and personal benefits I gained from dominating my fears taught me the supreme value of courage. While I am hardly the patron saint of courageous acts, I cherish courage above all other virtues. I have the Gaelic word for courage, misneach, prominently tattooed on my upper back ... it helps remind me of my feisty Celtic heritage. Also, I am the only person in North Carolina to have a courage license. More specifically, my personalized North Carolina license plate is the word COURAGE (wave if you pass me!). Finally, three years ago, I forced a little courage on my family, moving us away from most of my clients in Atlanta, Georgia, and up to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina. Why? So that we could all live more sanely ... and pry ourselves loose from Atlanta's traffic lunacy.
I'm so convinced of the importance of courage to business success that in 2002, after working as a change-management consultant for over a decade, I founded Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company. Our mission, like the aim of this book, is to help people and organizations to be more courageous so that they can take whatever "giant leaps" they're facing. Through the work Giant Leap has done with thousands of workers and renowned organizations, we've developed a track record of helping people to be more courageous at work. Keep in mind that Giant Leap's clients are not people who have been endowed with some superhuman courage gene. Rather, they are everyday people like you and me, who choose to apply what I call everyday courage. That is, a more tempered and measured courage than people typically associate with courageous acts. As someone who once found courage only in adrenaline-pumping and spine-tingling situations, I can now say unequivocally that courage is not limited to extreme feats of bravery. The most important lesson my clients have taught me is this: Courage is accessible to everyone. Not just the daredevils among us.
Fear, as this book will argue, is an invitation to experience your own courage. I am a very fearful guy. But I'm also a guy who hates being controlled—by people, situations, and most of all fear. Courage, to me, beats the alternative: letting other things dictate my actions. So, whenever possible, and when operating out of my better nature, I choose courage. And when I do, I feel good about myself. This is how it is for most workers too. Workers get pumped with pride when they overcome things that are hard, challenging, and scary ... when they take worthwhile "high dives." As a manager, when you build people's courage, you also stretch their capabilities, boost their performance, and help them to encounter their better selves. Once workers experience the value of being courageous, they begin to respond to work challenges that they formerly found frightening with newfound clarity, confidence, and conviction.
Fear They Lose ... and So Do You
Given the benefits to be gained when workers are courageous, it's striking to me that so many managers still resort to stoking people's fears to get things done. Managers who fill people with fear in order to motivate them often do so for reasons of efficiency and immaturity. It simply takes less time, thought, and technique to bark an order than it does to motivate people according to their interests, passion, and capabilities. Some managers justify their behavior with excuses like "I'm too busy to coddle people" and "I'm paid to get results, not to be nice to people." The way they see it, encouragement is a waste of time.
Having seen the wreckage caused by fear-based managers, I am convinced that fear is bad for business. Workers have a way of acting in their own worst interests when managers overload them with fear. Like flailing about at the sight of a bee, thinking that the best way to keep from getting stung is to wave hysterically, the actions of workers who are managed with fear are often dramatic and disproportionate to the fear being faced. Fear makes workers clam up, restricting the flow of feedback that is so necessary for keeping managers from making bonehead decisions. Fear heightens workers' suspicions of one another, undermining the trust that interpersonal relationships need to flourish. Fear causes workers to be unduly preoccupied with safety, strangling their willingness to take risks and extend their skills. Fear lowers morale, damages relationships, erodes trust, and builds resentment. Ultimately, fear lowers confidence, standards, and profits.
Encouragement does, as fear-stoking managers argue, take time. But providing encouragement to workers is an investment of time, not a waste of it. Don't think so? Consider the results I would have gotten if, to expedite the process of motivating Dustin Webster to do his high dive, I had used a fear-based management approach. First, I would have made him spend less time doing all those silly lead-ups. Why bother jumping off the side of the pool deck when the goal is to do a hundred-foot dive, right? I would have made sure that Dustin focused on all the things he was doing wrong so that he would stop doing them. Those were the risks, after all, that needed to be prevented. Then I would have pointed my finger in Dustin's face and told him what was at stake for the team, and me, if he screwed up. Saying this would clarify where the fault would reside if he wiped out. And instead of bothering to help Dustin to see that this dive was the next logical extension of his skills and capabilities, I would have told him that whether or not he wanted to do the dive was irrelevant—doing it was his job! All the while, I would have hovered over him, harping about how little time was left to get the job done.
Now, what kind of results do you think I would have gotten if I had tried to motivate Dustin by filling him with fear? Would my approach have made Dustin more confident, courageous, and optimistic? Would it have deepened his commitment to both me and the team? Would it have caused him to want to do bigger dives for me in the future? More to the bottom line, would my approach have enhanced his chances of taking a successful dive? No. In all likelihood, Dustin would have wiped out, or worse.
Your Choice—and Opportunity
As a manager, you may be tempted to resort to stoking people's fear when they aren't getting things done. Maybe this was the approach your bosses used on you. If you aim to build people's courage, however, you won't get there by putting fear inside them. You'll get there by filling workers with enough courage that they can dominate their fears. And the rewards are worth it. Workers who are courage-led are more engaged, committed, optimistic, loyal, and change-embracing. Why wouldn't they be? Imagine working for a boss whose vision was so bold that it actually excited you. Imagine working for a manager who valued mistake making as a natural and necessary part of your professional development. Imagine working for a manager who actually saw ass kissing as a repulsive, manipulative, and dishonest thing. Then go a step further and imagine what the whole company might look like if all the managers led by putting courage into their workers. It would be a workplace where you could implicitly trust the motives and intentions of everyone around you, and where you could speak the unvarnished truth without fear, and where you would make more forward-falling mistakes in order to better serve the company (and clients). This is the kind of company that Giant Leap is dedicated to creating: the courageous company.
Excerpted from COURAGE GOES TO WORK by BILL TREASURER Copyright © 2008 by Bill Treasurer. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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