Allison Todd has observed the effect that leading change has on employees as their companies transform. Here she draws a parallel between her favorite hobby (dance) and the effects of great leadership.
One thing you’ll notice in all successful companies: people are taking risks every day. When these employees are “in the zone,” it can be very empowering to watch. They’re in a mode of discovery, trying things that may seem ridiculous, dangerous, or outright wrong. But they’re exploring with such passion that it can capture your attention – just like catching someone dancing like nobody’s watching.
When you watch children gleefully dancing, not caring that anyone may be judging them, you see them working so hard at something that comes very naturally to them. But it is very scary to most of us adults. Why does it seem like kids are so willing to put themselves out there and take a chance – like the kid in this video? This child hasn’t yet experienced the consequences of trying something new. She hasn’t yet faced the social consequences of failing, or of just looking different.
There are definite parallels between this situation and companies with great leadership. Here are three things you can do to encourage your people to take more risks and work “like nobody’s watching”:
- Create a safe environment. The little girl in the video does take a bit of encouragement from her father once on the floor but her father and the wedding guests made her realize that the environment was safe for her to try. When managers encourage their employees not to worry about the consequences of failing, their people will try new and different approaches. These risky attempts have a higher incidence of failure – but they also have the potential to create your company’s next big innovation, or even the disruption of your market.
- Reward risk-taking. After a bit of extra applause from the crowd, the girl really starts letting go and gives a great performance. The result is a viral video that has created joy around the world and may have inspired others to step out of their comfort zone. What would have happened if, when the girl looked at her father, he had given her a gesture that it was not ok to dance? What if the crowd had booed the child instead of giving her encouragement? The girl probably would not have felt that it was a safe environment to dance. This is the same in any environment. When people are rewarded for risk-taking (i.e.: applause) they will continue to take risks. If they are punished, they will be more reluctant to take future risks in fear of possible punishment.
- Encourage participation from all levels. The little girl is possibly one of the least-experienced dancers there at the wedding. But when the first two elements in place were encouraged (a safe environment and risk-taking), she stepped up to try her hand (or foot) at dancing. The normal hierarchy within our organizations often doesn’t allow for non-management employees to try something new or step up as leaders. Creating a safe network environment where it’s okay to innovate helps empower employees at all levels to step up and become leaders. Why limit developing leadership to those only at the top of the hierarchy?
In Dr. John Kotter’s next book XLR8 (Accelerate!), he writes about a second system that complements our traditional management hierarchy. This system is networked in a way that enables people to be “in the zone.” When you create this environment all voices become equal and there is permission to try something new. All that is needed to participate are passion and capacity. Innovations around your passion may fail but there is a feeling that the risk is okay – and even welcomed. A day job in the hierarchy may require perfection and provide little room to innovate. There is less focus on development and growth as a leader when you are pressured to be perfect. Having a separate but connected environment, where employees can step outside of their day job, allows possibilities for growth and innovation. Once that freedom to try new things becomes ingrained in employees’ behavior it will spread, and the entire culture will evolve.
as though titles don’t limit you,
as though you have never failed before,
as though no one’s judging you.
Allison Todd works at Kotter International (www.kotterinternational.com), helping leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. Follow Kotter International on Twitter @KotterIntl, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. Sign up for the Kotter International Newsletter.