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KF #10. Courage Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

819: How to Stop Avoiding Conflict with Sarah Noll Wilson

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Sarah Noll Wilson shows how avoidance harms work and relationships.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The many consequences of avoiding conflict
  2. The key to overcoming avoidance
  3. How to train your body’s fight-or-flight response

About Scott

Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah Noll Wilson helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching, Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health. 

With 15+ years in leadership development, Sarah earned a Master’s Degree from Drake University in Leadership Development and a BA from the University of Northern Iowa in Theatre Performance and Theatre Education. When she isn’t helping people build and rebuild relationships, she enjoys playing games with her husband Nick and cuddling with their fur baby, Sally.

Resources Mentioned

Sarah Noll Wilson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Sarah, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thanks for having me. I’m really excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m excited to hear about Don’t Feed the Elephants!: Overcoming the Art of Avoidance to Build Powerful Relationships. But, first, we need to hear about you and your fondness for accordions.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Some people picked up baking during the pandemic, I picked up playing and collecting accordions.

Pete Mockaitis
Collecting. How many do you have?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Eight.

Pete Mockaitis
How much space does that take up in the home?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A lot because they’re not small, and they come in these big suitcases. I didn’t intend to buy eight. Three of them are actually broken, so I need to find homes because accordions are quite fragile.

Pete Mockaitis
Who would even like a broken accordion? Any takers?

Sarah Noll Wilson
There’s a market for accordion pieces. But, yeah, I had my grandpa’s accordion, and I always wanted to learn it, and then never had the opportunity. And this is actually the story, I wanted to cheer up my young neighbor whose birthday party got cancelled when everything shut down, and so I serenaded him from his front yard. The six-year-old was not into it. He was just like, “What’s my weird neighbor doing?”

And then, through a random chance on the internet, I got connected with one of the world’s best accordion players. He gave me some lessons during the pandemic, and then I got a frozen shoulder, I couldn’t play for a year and a half, and now I’m back.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. Okay. Kudos. And so, what makes the accordion special and fun when you’re playing it?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, that’s a really beautiful question. The instrument is incredibly complicated because you have three different components you’re thinking about. You have the keyboard on the one side, you have the base notes which are organized in a different order, it’s chromatic or by frets, and then you have the bellows. And so, one thing that I love about playing is somebody with ADHD, it’s really hard. And as a business owner, there’s very few tasks I can do where my brain can totally focus on one thing. And because of the complexity, it’s very much a point of self-care for me.

Also, it’s just fun and quirky, and people don’t expect you to pull out the accordion. And the other thing is it became a place where my parents and I bonded virtually, so they loved to hear me play. And so, when I play, I think about them, so there’s like an emotional component to it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a lot to that notion associated. It has sufficient complexity to completely absorb your thoughts, and, thusly, it’s self-care. And I’ve been seeing a lot of people saying things, because I got so into this at Chess.com and cheating allegations, like, “What’s this Chess.com all about?”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it just sucked me into this whole world. And that seemed to be a theme for a lot of people in the pandemic, was with chess, it’s like, “Oh, well, this absorbs all my thoughts and I’m not worried about all this stuff because I’m thinking about, ‘How the heck can I checkmate this guy in three moves? Is that even possible?’ Wait, let’s try this. Let’s try this.” And then the brain is completely consumed with the puzzle.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I like to think of it as a snow globe that finally gets to settle, and you just get to focus on one thing. And the problem is, as I’ve actually gotten better because I’m taking lessons from somebody who knows how to teach a beginner because my friend, who I met, was like teaching me music theory on the second session. I was like, “I just want to know what to do with these buttons.”

But, one night, I was playing, and I was playing a song, and I stopped, and I looked over at my husband and I was like, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about something with the business X, Y, Z.” He’s like, “Oops, time out. Time out. You’re not playing complicated enough music if you’re thinking about business at the same time.” And he’s like, “I just want to make that observation.” But I can see that with chess because that’s not just as simple as, “I’m making a move and now I’m waiting.” You’re looking at all the possibilities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. All right. Well, let’s talk about your book Don’t Feed the Elephants! Tell me, did you make any particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries about conflict and avoidance when you were digging into this?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I love that question. When I started out on this path, I always lovingly say I’m a card-carrying member of the conflict avoidance club. I grew up in the Midwest, I grew up from families of conflict avoidance, and I was really interested in, “How do we have the conversation?” and there are so many great books out there about things you can say and things you can do.

And the thing that I started to notice in my journey of experimenting and trying to figure this out is that there wasn’t a lot about, “How do we name and notice the avoidance?” Because what I was seeing is that there were people who had, even when they had the tools of how to have the conversation, they were still avoiding it.

And so, that took me on this trajectory of, “How do we get really curious about the avoidance so that we can push through that and then have the conversation?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I want to talk, absolutely, about how that’s done. Maybe we could start with a little bit of why. Is avoidance okay?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it working for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we decode that? Like, what’s at stake here?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, sometimes it is appropriate. And we have to understand that if we’re avoiding, whether we’re conscious of it or not, it’s because we’re coming from a place of protection. We’re protecting ourselves, maybe we’re protecting others, which is still protecting ourselves. Maybe we’re protecting our power. Maybe we’re in a place of protection.

And one way I like to think of avoidance is through sort of the lens of there’s aggressive passive-aggressive avoidance where I’m stonewalling, where I’m throwing the grenade as I leave the room. And in those situations, it’s like power over the situation. I’m trying to cause a reaction and then leave. Then there’s fearful avoidance. I’m afraid to be hurt. I’m afraid I’m going to be retaliated against. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt someone’s feelings. And then what does that mean about me?

But then the third one that I like to frame it up is this conscious avoidance or disengagement. And maybe I might avoid a situation if I truly know that I’m not safe. I might avoid a situation because, I mean, we’ve all had moments where we go, “That’s just not a battle I want to pick right now.” Maybe my energy is spent somewhere else. Maybe it’s a relationship that’s not as important to me, and I go, “You know what, it’s just…”

But the difference is conscious avoidance, from my perspective, is if aggressive avoidance is power over, fearful avoidance is feeling powerless, conscious avoidance is like power from within that I’m making the choice not to engage, and I’m coming from a place of acceptance rather than fear or resignation. And so, I think that’s important because sometimes, when people are getting excited about this work or other people’s bodies of work of, “How do we have the conversation?” they’re like, “Got to have the conversation. Got to free the elephant,” and they get really aggressive about it, but sometimes it might actually be safer and better for us to not. But I wanted to come from a place of choice instead of a default.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense, as oppose to, “That’s just too much. I’m overwhelmed. This is scary. Avoid. Eject. Evacuate,” instead of that just being like exactly automatically where we go. That is one of several options at our disposal, and we will thoughtfully conscientiously choose what works best for us. So, now, tell us, what is at stake or what do we stand to lose if our default setting is to avoid conflict? Like, we are chronically consistently avoiding conflict, what will be the implications, consequences for us?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So much. There are implications of our connections with others won’t be as deep or as authentic. We can cause harm to relationships that we won’t realize. One of the ways I think about it is that the comfort we gain in the short term doesn’t always outweigh the damage in the long term. I’ve seen organizations where when they are a culture of “harmony” or “niceness,” a lot of problems are underneath the surface.

Actually, I just had a client recently who said, “You know, when we don’t speak it out, we always act it out.” I loved how he said that. And so, that could be relationships, high-quality, deep-trusting relationships, that can be from an organization perspective. We can be losing out on creativity and innovation and better ideas, that psychological safety, but also on a personal level if we’re avoiding.

For some people, we also could be sacrificing ourselves in the process of not setting boundaries, of not being clear about what we need, not being able to communicate that. And that can erode your relationship with yourself and your relationship with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, plenty is at stake there. Then tell us, how do we overcome that avoidance? How do we find the courage? What’s the process?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, the tools that we’ve put together, the framework we use, and I always say this as a disclaimer, if you will, that humans are complex, and relationships are complex, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Even if you and I have a really great relationship, maybe you’re stressed about something, like you’re in a different headspace, or you’re “hangry”, or you’re focused on something else.

So, I always say it’s all about, “How many tools can we have at the ready so that we can bring it out?” So, one of the things that I recognize in the conversations and all the work that I was doing with individuals, and even in my own experience, is that a lot of times, the reason, one of the reasons we were avoiding is because we’re thinking of the conversation as a confrontation.

And I think that, “How do we prepare people and how can we think about this situation differently so we can diffuse the heat for us?” So, what I lay out in the book, and what I firmly believe in, is that one of the ways that we can approach these conversations so that we can have more courage is through curiosity.

And the reason that curiosity is so important is a couple of things. So, one of the things I noticed as a pattern is that when people were frustrated in a situation, they often just say frustrated and didn’t really understand exactly why they were frustrated. And what we know about relationships is that if there is a conflict, if there’s a disagreement or tension, it’s usually because a value of ours is being stepped on or a need is not being met. And so, people weren’t going to that level.

The other thing that I observed is that people would rarely get curious about the other person. They’re just busy being mad at them and not considering their perspective. And then, finally, because we’re talking about multiple humans and relationship with each other, it was really hard for people to get curious about the role that they played.

And one of the things we know also about curiosity is that in order for us to be curious, that activates our higher-functioning part of our brain, which calms down that primitive amygdala brain that will get triggered when we’re feeling threatened in a situation. So, our approach is we call it the curiosity first approach.

And so, it starts with getting curious with yourself, and that could be asking questions, like, “What am I feeling? What do I need in this situation? What information do I have, don’t I have?” When we’re talking about work in particular, and we’re struggling with someone, this comes up a lot when we’re working with managers, is, “Is it a preference issue or is it a performance issue?” because sometimes we confuse the two, that, “I think you’re not performing well because you’re not doing it how I would want to do it.”

And so, it’s just taking a little bit of time to slow down to unpack, and go, “What am I actually feeling? And why am I feeling that way?” And so, here’s what it can look like in practice. I was working with somebody. This is like a classic story that I think just demonstrates it so beautifully. He was a manager, and one of his team members would interrupt anytime he’d have a conversation with someone in the area.

So, she would shout over the cubicle walls and interrupt, and it just drove him nuts, and he’s like, “I have to tell her to stop.” And I said, “Yes, you do. But, like, what is it about that? Like, what value of yours is being stepped on when she’s doing that?” And he thought about it for a moment, and he went, “I think it’s disrespectful.” And then I invited him to get curious about her, because I said, “Clearly, she doesn’t think she’s being disrespectful.” I said, “What value of hers do you think she’s honoring in this moment?” And he was like right away, “Oh, shoot, she thinks she’s being helpful.”

And so, now they can have a very different conversation around needs instead of just, “Don’t do that.” So, phase one is get curious with yourself, and then it’s get curious about the other when it makes sense. And the reason I say it like that is because we always say curiosity is an invitation, not a prescription.

For example, I’m not going to ask somebody who’s experienced harassment to get curious about their harasser. Like, that’s not going to be the ask. And then when we’re going into the conversation, “How can we approach it from being curious with them?” And there are some strategies we lay out there. So, it’s very much anchored in, “How do we get clear about what’s going on, get clear about what I’m feeling, get clear about what’s the impact I want to make on this conversation?” And then enter into it as a conversation instead of a confrontation. That’s a lot of information I just summed up for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And I like it that it’s, okay, curious, curious, curious in terms of the running thread through it all. And so, that’s easy to remember as opposed to, “There’s nine key principles, Pete.” And I guess I’m wondering, even before we can get to that place of higher-order emotional, intellectual, wise, calm processing…

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thoughtful, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re just angry, it hurts. Like, is there sort of like a stop, drop, and roll, or CPR, or First Aid before we get into these wise thoughts just to be able to get a grip to be able to go there?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yes. And for us, it’s being able to notice and name in the moment when we’ve been triggered, and to build up that muscle to be like, “Oh, I am frustrated right now.” Because, you’re right, you can’t jump to that when that amygdala is triggered. We’re not getting curious. And so, for us, that’s why a lot of our work is on helping people understand our biological stress reaction so we can start to see those in the moment, so then we can name it, because I firmly believe in what I’ve observed is when we can see something and name it, then we can choose to change it.

And so, some strategies. One, when you notice you’re getting emotionally triggered is deep breathing is really effective. And I always love to explain why because we know breathing is helpful in a stressful situation, but it’s literally because our organs are massaging the vagus nerve, it’s the longest nerve in our body. And when we can massage that, that actually kicks off chemicals to calm down that sympathetic nervous system response, that fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flock response, and so deep breathing is really powerful. And what I love about breathing is it’s free. And if we’re lucky, it’s always with us.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I am a subscriber to the Breathwrk app, so I like all kinds of breathing things. Tell me, any finer points when it comes to deep breathing in terms of nose, mouth, counting, pace, diaphragm, or just any kind of deep breathing is just fine?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I think any kind of deep breathing is fine, but if you’re noticing you’re particularly emotionally triggered, for me, personally, I love the four-four-four just because it’s really simple. I’m going to breathe in for four counts, I’m going to hold it for four counts, and then I’m going to exhale for four counts. And, again, we can’t get to that higher thinking if we don’t realize that our brain has been flooded, and that can be tricky in the moment.

Because the thing, sometimes when we hear people, it’s like, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not react,” or, “I want to be able to have these conversations and not have the other person react,” and it’s really important for us to understand that that stress reaction happens so fast. Our amygdala can flood our brain in 0.07 seconds. It happens so fast. So, the goal isn’t to remove the reaction. The goal is how quickly can we notice it so then we can work to try to recover, so we can show up more intentionally.

I can go on and on about the amygdala. It’s my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, 0.07 seconds, whenever we have a precise number, it makes me think you know what you’re talking about, Sarah.

Sarah Noll Wilson
You want a couple others, right? Like, the chemicals will peak in 18 minutes but it actually can take up to 24 hours for cortisol, adrenaline to be metabolized, which is why I’m not a fan of, like, “We have this tough conversation. Let’s figure out the solution.” I’m like, “Nope. My brain isn’t there yet.” I’m very pro go-to-bed mad, which, like, bucks every piece of advice you get on your wedding day. But to go to bed consciously, intentionally, to say, “I’m not in the headspace right now. I need to give this some time for this to clear up. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about sort of First Aid or CPR as the deep breathing in the moment. I’m curious, any prudent self-care strategies during the 24 hours following the flooding?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think that that looks different for different people. So, I’m a big, big believer in figure out your personal manual, if you will. So, for me, I know that going for walks and getting physically active is really helpful in helping me, like, settle that brain a bit so that I can access the higher-functioning parts of our brain.

And, again, I’m just speaking from my experience, so physical activity can really be valuable. Depending on your situation, some kind of physical touch can be really valuable and calming. And one of the things that I wanted to just, like, talk about for a moment, because I think meetings after the meetings get a bad rap. We’re all like, “Oh, we got meetings after the meetings.”

But, biologically, typically the first stress response we have is what we call a flock response. We flock to another human to be like, “Am I crazy? Did that just happen?” And sometimes that can be unproductive. If I’m just coming to you to vent and to ruminate, that can be unhealthy and unproductive. But sometimes it can be a healthy response, to say, “I need to talk to someone else about this to get perspective, to help me kind of navigate my emotion so I can get to a place on the other side.” So, if you have people with whom you can talk to, that can be really powerful, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about the self-care, and we talked about the deep breathing. And when it comes to these levels of curiosity, are there any super questions you find to be particularly effective in surfacing that positive curious mojo?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. I think, for yourself, one of the most important questions is, “What do I need in this moment?” We don’t often, and this has been my experience with the work that we get an opportunity, I feel like we get a front-row view of humans and teams, that we don’t often think about it. We’re just mad, or we’re just frustrated, or we’re just scared, or whatever the case might be. But, like, “What do I need in this moment?”

So, that, one, it takes the pointing of the fingers away from someone else, to, like, “What do I need?” So, when I think about getting curious with yourself, I think that’s a really important question. I think a hard question that is equally important is, “What role am I playing or did I play?” And there might not be an answer to it, but a lot of times we likely have contributed to a situation, and so that’s valuable.

When I think about the question that I would want to ask about someone else, and when I talk about getting curious about someone, the goal isn’t to fill in their story or to make assumptions. It’s just to remind ourselves that they have a story, that they have a perspective on this. And so, I love the question, “What makes sense to them?” because sometimes what can happen is, when we are emotionally triggered and put into that protective state, we can jump to judgment, like, “They’re an idiot. I don’t understand why they would do that.” But we all are walking around behaving in ways that make sense to ourselves.

And then when I think about getting curious with, I think, again, one of the questions that we don’t often think about, we’re just like, we ramp up for this conversation, we’re feeling the apprehension or the nerves, or maybe we’re feeling the fight, whatever it might be, is to ask yourself, “What impact do I want to make with this conversation? What’s the impact I want to make on you, on our relationship, on this moment, for me? Because maybe my impact is I want to set a boundary, which means that in order for me to do that, I need to be maybe more courageous. Maybe I want to repair so I need to be more empathetic.”

And I think that we kind of just like go into the conversation and we don’t think about, “What’s the impact I want to make?” Not that you can totally control it. You can’t. The other person gets to decide the impact, ultimately, but it can calm us down. And what I love about that question is that, at the end of the day, I can’t control you and your reaction but I can control how I’m going to show up.

And so, for me, if I’m going into a particularly heated conversation, and I’m talking about this, like, I’ll calm but, let’s be real, my heart races and I’m stressed the night before and thinking about it. But sometimes, even if the result isn’t what I hoped for, I always want to leave knowing I did my best and I showed up as intentionally as I could.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, those would be the three questions.

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. And if it’s not us but someone else who’s avoiding conflict and we really do have to have that conversation, or so it seems to us, any pro tips for engaging that person optimally?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. So, when I hear that, I think, like, a situation where, “You two clearly need to talk, like you need to stop talking to me.” But then I want to talk about how you could bring it up in a team. So, I’m a big fan of, “It sounds like you need to have a conversation with this person. What can I do to help?” And then leading them through. That’s what I love about the curiosity first approach, is you can use it for yourself or for someone else.

So, if they’re coming to you and they’re all fired up, “Yeah, like I can see you’re mad. What’s the need that you have right now that’s not being met? Yeah, I can see that. What information do you think they’re missing that might be valuable?” or whatever the case might be, but encouraging. And there are times when, and I’ve had situations, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty. I’ve been guilty of this, but there are times where maybe someone’s talking to you about a situation, and it’s the third or fourth time. And at some point, that’s when there’s, from my standpoint, a loving push of, “I can see this is still bothering you. This is the third time you’ve brought it up with me. I’m actually not the one that can change this situation.”

And so, one of the practices that I love that’s from Marshall Goldsmith’s work in his book Triggers is in any situation, we can accept it, we can adjust it, or we can avoid it, and so navigating that. If it’s a situation where I feel like I’m sensing, like, “I think we need to talk about this,” then I’ll just approach that, “Hey, can we talk about that meeting and what happened?”

I’m a big fan, especially if it’s one to one, of coming at it from a place of, “I want to hear your perspective, and I’d like to share with you mine,” because I wanted it to be an invitation for a conversation instead of just, “Hey, I want to tell you how terrible you were, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” But to just say, “Hey, would you be open,” I also love that language, “Would you be open to talking about that meeting? I’d like to hear your perspective, and I want to share with you mine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you used one of my favorite phrases when you talked about, you said you liked that language. And I would like to hear some of your favorite words and phrases in the course of these conversations that seem to be really handy, and maybe some words and phrases that are troubling and ought to be avoided.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Anything that’s always, never.

Pete Mockaitis
Always, never, should, but.

Sarah Noll Wilson
To avoid, yeah. Any you, “You do this,” and “You always do this.”

Pete Mockaitis
“You always should never…”

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, those are juicy. Some phrases that I like to have, and it depends on the situation. Okay, so let’s talk. One of my favorite phrases to use when someone is getting heated, because, again, there are times when I will fight, and there are times when I will get into a full freeze mode. I love the practice of honor the emotion but coach the behavior.

And what that looks like is, “Hey, Pete, it’s okay that you’re upset right now. What’s not okay is you keep interrupting me.” So, you honor the other person’s emotions, but you’re setting some boundaries on what’s appropriate for us to talk about. You know, I’m also just a big fan of “Tell me more.” I think that, so often, I don’t think, I know this from, like, observing conversations day in, day out, is that sometimes we think we know what the other person means, and just like double-clicking, or that’s such a corporate phrase.

But just getting curious about, “Okay, when you said transparency, what did that mean to you? Or, how would you define that? Or, what would that look like in our relationship?” Because a lot of times, you know, there’s Judith E. Glaser, she’s a researcher that built a body of work, Conversational Intelligence, and there’s a study that she referenced that it’s something like nine out of ten conversations miss the mark.

And some of that is because we think we understand each other, “Oh, yeah, you said this, and I said this, and I know what that means to me, but I don’t actually clarify what that means to you.” When I’m working on a team, I love using language of observation and then an invitation, “I want to make an observation. I feel like we’re dancing around X. What do other people think?”

“I’m on the balcony right now,” that’s language we use, “I’m on the balcony right now, and I want to make an observation that we haven’t heard from half the group, and I’m curious about what we’re missing out on because we’re not hearing those voices.” So, I love an observation because it’s not as strong as just an accusation, and it invites people into the conversation in a safe way.

Something that’s a practice that I wish I would love to see happen more. Oh, wait. I have two more. I’ve got like a whole slew of them. This actually comes from my colleague Gilmara Vila Nova-Mitchell, and it’s asking for a do-over. So, when a conversation doesn’t go well, and you know it, you just go, “Oh, I, like, stuck my foot in my mouth, and I want to repair it.” Sometimes we’ll just leave it and linger and hope it goes away, and we pretend that it didn’t happen.

But she uses the language of, “I’d like to do a do-over. And a do-over isn’t so I can reiterate my point of view into over so I can show up more intentionally.” And I think that can be really, really powerful when you’re trying to repair, because courage isn’t just when things are in conflict. We need courage when we’re trying to repair or heal a relationship. I think one of the hardest things to do is to really honestly apologize when you’ve hurt somebody. That can be really, really hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Sarah, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, I think the thing that people are so much more capable than I think we give ourselves credit to be able to hold steady. And so, what I always lovingly say is practice won’t make it easy but it might make it easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I was about to ask for a favorite quote. That might be one. You got another?

Sarah Noll Wilson
I do. I do. That’s not mine. That’s my quote. My favorite quote is from the author, Minda Harts, and she wrote the book Right Within, The Memo, and the quote is “Nobody will benefit from your caution, but many can benefit from your courage.” That is on my mind and heart every single day in my work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Dr. Tasha Eurich, her book Insight, I love the study on self-awareness that they did that basically showed that roughly 90% of people think they’re highly self-aware and only about 10-15% are. And I think that’s valuable for us. I like to think, instead of thinking, “I’m self-aware.” Now I think, “How might I not be?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And a favorite book?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The Waymakers by Tara Jaye Frank, and it’s clearing a path to equity with competence and confidence. I think it’s a really excellent book that offers tangible practices on how we can show up differently for those of us who are committed to pursue equity and inclusion.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Sarah Noll Wilson
A tool that I like in my conversations, and this comes from the work of Conversational Intelligence, is understanding that all conversations dance in the space of transactional, positional, or transformational. And once I understood that, I could show up very differently of knowing what the moment and the relationship needed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I know what transactional is. What’s positional and what’s transformational?

Sarah Noll Wilson
So, positional. So, if transactional is an exchange of information, telling, selling, yelling; positional is advocating and inquiring; and then transformational is sharing and discovering.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. And a favorite habit?

Sarah Noll Wilson
The one I’m working on building is sleep because it’s the domino that everything else falls from. So, for me, it’s doing things to have really good sleep, and playing the accordion. That’s also one of my favorite habits.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I recently became aware of Crescent Health, does sleep coaching. That exists now. Fun fact.

Sarah Noll Wilson
That’s so interesting. Love that. Can I add that to my list? It’s the linchpin of mental health for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Two. “People don’t fear change, they fear loss.” And the second one is, “You don’t get to decide if you’re trustworthy. The other person does.” Those are the two that I hear the most.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah, they can come to our website SarahNollWilson.com. My name is on the site but the team is behind it. Or, if you want to connect personally, my DMs are always open, so I’m very active on Twitter and LinkedIn, and I’d love, love to hear from folks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Sarah Noll Wilson
Yeah. Notice. See if you can notice and name the emotion or reaction. See if you can do the CPR we were talking about, and take a deep breath and to then make an intentional choice. So, see if you can catch the amygdala flooding, or hijack, sometime this week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sarah, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much luck with “Don’t Feed the Elephants!” and all your adventures.

Sarah Noll Wilson
Thank you.

800: How to Get Better at Asking for Help with Dr. Heidi Grant

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Dr. Heidi Grant reveals the secrets to asking for and getting the help you need.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why asking for help is beneficial for everyone involved 
  2. The do’s and don’ts of asking for help
  3. The telltale sign that you need to ask for help

About Heidi

Dr. Heidi Grant is a leadership, influence and motivation expert, who is ranked among the top management thinkers globally.  Her books include 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, and Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You.  She is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and CBS Mornings, and her TED talk has been viewed more than 3 million times. 

 

 Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Dr. Heidi Grant Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Heidi, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Heidi Grant
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom, and, first, I want to hear a little bit about you and science fiction.

Heidi Grant
Oh, I’m a huge science fiction nerd. It’s my favorite thing on the planet. Science fiction and fantasy. I’m one of those people that refuses to pick sides on the whole Star Wars-Star Trek debate because they’re both amazing, so it’s like choosing between children. You just can’t do it. And, also, Lord of the Rings, I think I remember I had a boyfriend in college who gave me a birthday card that was actually written in Elvish runes. He probably lasted longer than he would have normally. That was such a cool thing.

So, yeah, big science fiction nerd, big comic book nerd as well – Marvel, DC, all of those things. Those are the things that are sort of my brain candy where I do a lot of hard thinking during the day and the night. I relax by watching people in spaceships do cool things and meet aliens. That’s very relaxing to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. That’s good. Well, it’s funny, we’re talking about your book Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You and I’m thinking about, right now, I read a book, this is my nerdiness, I read a book in college entitled Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Heidi Grant
Oh, that’s amazing. That’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think Captain Picard was great at getting people to help him.

Heidi Grant
Absolutely. Jean-Luc had so much to say. Absolutely. And he was a fantastic mediator as well so he could help you to choose sides. Both kind of come together over an issue. Very wise man. I’m sure that was an excellent book, actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really did enjoy it. Well, let’s talk about how one gets people to help you. Any particularly surprising and fascinating discoveries you made as you did your research here?

Heidi Grant
Yeah, I think you have to start from…and I wrote the book, this was a book I wrote because this was something I was so good at. In fact, the opposite is true. There’s a running joke amongst psychologists that all psychology is me-psychology because we, like most researchers, are either interested in things they are very good at or things they’re very bad at.

And this was one of those cases where I was interested in this topic because it was something that I, to this day, even I struggle with feeling comfortable asking other people to help me. And I couched in all these positive terms, “I’m very independent,” “I’m very self-reliant,” and that’s what we say to ourselves. When, really, what it is, it’s like, “I’m very deeply uncomfortable making myself vulnerable in that way.”

And so, I wanted to kind of understand it, and I had colleagues who, we were doing research at Columbia that we’re kind of digging into sort of the first piece of the puzzle, which is trying to understand why it is that we’re so uncomfortable with asking for help and why it is that we’re so wrong about the chances of actually getting help.

A colleague of mine did a ton of research that was really interesting, she’d bring people into the lab and she’d ask them to go out, and they would be paid to do this, they would be tasked with going and asking strangers for various forms of help, asking them if you could use their cellphone, if they would fill out a survey for you.

There was one where she had people go into the Columbia library and ask people who were in the library if they would write the word pickle on the inside of a library book, so the requests were odd, and everyone hated it. The minute when they found out what the study was about, they were just absolutely filled with dread because it’s, again, very human to be very uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for help, particularly strangers.

And she would ask them, “What are the odds you think people will help you? What percentage of people will say yes? Or, how many people will you have to ask before someone says yes?” They would go to like Penn Station or Grand Central, these are very public places, and just walk up to strangers and ask for help.

And what she found was that first of all, they were filled with dread, and then they would wildly underestimate the odds of actually getting help, that typically by a factor of, like, roughly 50%. So, people are at least twice as likely to say yes than we realize. And what was so interesting about this was that they would go out, and they would say, “Well, nobody is going to say yes to this,” and, in fact, a whole bunch of people said yes and were very helpful.

So, they would leave the lab full of dread that this was the thing they had to do, but then they would come back filled with this, like, warm glow of just how wonderful people turned out to be. Everyone had this experience of thinking, like, “Huh, human beings are a lot better than I thought they were.” And so, this was sort of one of these fundamental truths that one of the big obstacles we have to asking for help is that we tend to think we’re much more likely to get a rejection than we actually are.

And, of course, very few people, willingly walking to a situation where they think the odds of rejection are high. So, the beginning of the book is just sort of unpacking, like, actually, human beings are kind of wired to be helpful. It is our natural state. It’s one of the things all humans find most rewarding, or at least most humans who aren’t sociopaths, which is most of us.

They find most rewarding, and it is one of the strongest sources of self-esteem and wellbeing and life satisfaction to feel like you are doing things that have a positive impact on other people. So, people actually love to say yes, they love to help one another. And even though we each know this about ourselves, that we all like helping other people, somehow, when it comes to other people, we think, “Well, they don’t though and they’re going to probably reject me.”

So, part of it is it’s just kind of understanding that we’re often approaching asking for help kind of with the idea that we’re not going to get it, and that it turns out to largely not be the case.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s super helpful, and, yet, you say that, here, you’ve written the book on the subject and you still feel discomfort. So, knowing that is great, like, “Okay, cool. I have some logical, rational, sort of prefrontal cortex reassurance and reasons that it’s all good to ask for help, and people actually enjoy helping, and yet I still feel uncomfortable.” It sounds like that can take a while to master. But do you have any pro tips on how we can nudge it a little bit more there?

Heidi Grant
Sure. Get a little more. Well, I think, like anything else, practice makes perfect. And so, and certainly practice makes comfortable. Like, the more we do a thing and we realize we didn’t die, everything works out okay, the world didn’t open up and swallow us, then we get a little bit more comfortable with it.

I think it also helps to actually have, be armed with a few strategies that increase your chances of success. One of the things that I talk about in the book is, and I mean this in a very helpful way, is that if you aren’t getting the help and support that you need in your life, odds are good it’s kind of your fault. And it’s not something people want to hear.

Each of us runs around thinking that we’re not getting…very few of us, actually, I feel like, I think we’re getting the support and help that we could certainly benefit from. And a lot of times, we should have these stories in our heads about how that’s not, like, “Oh, it’s so terrible that I’m not getting the support, and other people should be giving it to me.”

So, one of the other things I talk about in the book is sort of what a potential helper needs in order to help you, and that very often we don’t give them those things so that’s why they don’t help us. So, it’s not that people get lots of help. It’s that when they don’t get it, it’s kind of because there’s something they’re not doing, or something they’re doing that’s actually kind of counterproductive.

So, in terms of the things you need to do, we can kind of start there, what you need to do in order to actually get help, your helper kind of needs four things, I talk about in the book. So, the first is to actually know that you need help. This is already, foundationally, one of the biggest problems and one of the reasons why we don’t each of us get the help, either personally or professionally, that we need. We feel like that our need for support is obvious to other people.

The psychologists call this particular bias the allusion of transparency. We feel like our thoughts and our feelings and our intentions and our needs are very obvious to other people because they’re obvious to us, “So, clearly, you must know that I need help.” Especially true, of course, or with the people that we’re around the most, so with our closest coworkers, with our partners, with our family, our closest friends. We think they know, like, “I need help and you can tell.”

In fact, there’s tons of research that shows that nothing could be farther from the truth. Even the people that know us well and are around us every day often actually just simply do not see that we are in need of help because each of us, ourselves very much included, is mostly focused on our own needs, and so we do not see everything there is to see, and it’s very easy to miss the fact that somebody actually could use your hand with something. It’s really easy to skip that.

And we don’t say anything. And we say things to ourselves, like, “Well, it should be obvious to you,” “It should go without saying that I need your help with that.” No. By the way, one of the expressions, as a person who studies communication and sort of social interaction for a living, I would tell you the most annoying phrase in the world is “It goes without saying,” because nothing goes without saying. Everything goes with saying, like everything all the time goes with saying.

So, I think the first piece is actually we have to say it. And nobody likes hearing that because we won’t want to live in a universe where our needs are obvious to other people so we don’t have to, again, make ourselves vulnerable by actually saying them out loud. But the very first step to getting help is actually asking for it, which actually solves the second problem as well, which is that even if someone happens to see that you need help, they don’t actually know that you want it.

And if you have ever tried to give help to someone who didn’t want your help, like I have teenagers and I see that they’re struggling with something, and I offer unsolicited help to them, and it does not always go well, and so, again, that need to ask for it so that people know that you need it and want it is just an unavoidable fact of the universe of support. We have to ask for help if we want it.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s really ringing true for me here is I’ve just sort of learned, like, I have a background in strategy consulting and coaching, and so I see all the time, it’s like, “Oh, you’re engaging in behaviors that are counterproductive to your stated goals.” It’s like, “But if I tell you about it, you’ll probably bite my head off, so I’m just going to hang back.”

Heidi Grant
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s like I’m just sort of made peace with it, and at first, it really bothered me, it’s like, “Oh, am I being selfish? Is this wrong?” But it’s like, “They didn’t ask.” And, actually, when people do ask, I’m delighted.

Heidi Grant
It’s the best, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve had some really cool experiences with folks that I had sort of good mentoring going on with them because they asked, it’s like, “I’m so glad you asked why I rejected you in an interview. I have much to tell you.” And they said, “Oh, wow, thanks. That’s really awesome. Thanks.” And then away they went.

Heidi Grant
It’s a wonderful gift when you actually ask for help because, very often, people, like I said, they see the need, like you could use some support, but it’s a terrible situation to be into to feel like that may not be welcomed. And, in fact, people generally like it is counterproductive, in fact, to give people help they didn’t ask for, nine times out of ten.

So, it’s a very real and legitimate concern, which means we do have to get past this reluctance to ask for it. And the other couple things that it’s good to bear in mind are that people need to know. So, they need to know you need help, they need to know you want it. They need to know that they, specifically, are the person you’re asking for help from. I cannot tell you how many times I see this, like, blanket emails go out to 20 people, or like BCC, which isn’t fooling anybody. We know there’s a ton of people on that email, saying, like, “Hey, could someone help me with this?”

And there’s a phenomenon in psychology called diffusion of responsibility. It’s a reason why, on an airplane, the flight attendant will say, “Is there a doctor on board?” because if you don’t say that, then there may be doctors on board but they won’t realize like they should do something. So, it’s that idea that you have to kind of say.

I always say to people, “Don’t send an email to 20 people. Send 20 emails to one, each one to one,” because then that person realizes, “Oh, you’re talking specifically to me.” Because what happens to the 20-person email is that we all sort of sit there, and we go, “Well, somebody else probably responded already,” and then we just kind of let it float down in our inbox.

So, make sure that they know that they are themselves the person you’re asking for help. And then the last thing, again, it’s something that’s wildly overlooked when we ask in this sort of realm of support-seeking, is you want to make sure the person feels like they can give you effective help. Nobody wants to give bad help. Nobody wants to be asked to do a thing and then fail at delivering on it. The amount of, like, guilt and shame you would feel is sort of staggering.

And so, one of the things I’ve noticed that people often do, a mistake we make when we ask for help, is that we don’t kind of enable the person to actually be effective. I can’t tell you how many requests I get to just like connect, like on LinkedIn, or an email, you’ll get something, like, “Hey, we’d love to just connect,” and it’s like, “Okay, you want something.” Very few actually just want to connect. There’s something.

Pete Mockaitis
With a total stranger, you know, not such a human need but, yeah.

Heidi Grant
Right, like, we’re hoping to achieve a thing, like we’re hoping to learn something, or we’re hoping to get an introduction to something, or get access to a resource. There’s always an agenda with human beings. Like, we always have some goal. And when you don’t tell me what it is, my discomfort immediately is, “Am I going to get into this conversation with you and then, in the conversation, you’re going to ask me for help that I can’t give for whatever reason, and I’m so uncomfortable, and I do this?”

“I’m so uncomfortable with the idea that you might ask me for help that I can’t give, that I don’t do the connecting because I don’t want to be put in that position where somebody asks me for something, and it’s like I’m the wrong person.” But I do say yes when people kind of reach out to me, and they say, “Hi, I want to connect because I’d like to learn X, because I’d like to know Y, because I know that you know this person and I’m hoping you’ll make an introduction.”

Okay, now I know what you want, so now I know whether or not I can be effective in giving you the help you’re seeking, so now I have a lot more confidence. People often shy away from giving support because they think they might fail. And so, we should always be thoughtful about being very explicit in helping the person understand how they can help us so that they have confidence going into it that it’s something they’re actually going to be able to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful stuff. Maybe you’re kinder than I am, Heidi.

Heidi Grant
Probably not.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m assuming if someone asks to connect with no context…we had a great conversation with Rene Rodriguez about stories and frames, and how we just need them. And if there’s not one provided, we just invent one, and I’m so guilty of this.

Heidi Grant
Oh, and it’s always…almost always negative.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I invent the frames, like, “You want to sell me something. It’s unclear what that is,” because I have been grateful…you know, I’ve been cold-approached on several occasions, bought the thing, and was delighted I bought the thing, was delighted I’ve had the cold approach. But I also know, statistically, hmm, less than a 1% chance, the cold approach to sell me a thing is the thing I happen to want to buy in that moment.

Heidi Grant
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I just assume, “You want to sell me a thing and that’s very likely I don’t want it. Therefore, I’m not interested in connecting.” So, I just invented that frame, may or may not be accurate, but if they told me, you’re right, something, like, “Hey, here’s a thing that I’d like your help with,” I’ve really gone into great detail talking to total stranger, “Oh, you want to start a podcast? Let me send you a huge email about how to do that.” And it’s like, “I don’t know you, and this just felt good. I thought you had a cool idea and I’d like to see it in the world, and if I could help a little bit, that feels awesome.”

Heidi Grant
It does feel awesome, and I think that is exactly the thing that a lot of times we shy away from being specific for all the wrong reasons. We sort of feel like, “Oh, well, ease the person into the request,” and it’s like, “No, no, no, you’re actually just scaring them away from even having the conversation with you.” Or, people will say, like, “Oh, it feels a little aggressive to just come out with what it is that I’m looking for,” and it’s like, “No, you’re creating clarity and certainty for people, which they really, people like. Human beings like certainty. We like to know what we’re getting ourselves into.”

And, like I said, there’s almost always an agenda, and people aren’t just looking to make new friends, generally, right? There’s something they’re seeking. And so, I think it’s a really super common mistake. I categorized this into sort of, I call this “You made it weird” things, where it’s like, “I would’ve helped you but you made it weird,” or, “I would’ve helped you but you were weirdly reticent to tell me what it was that you wanted help with, and so that was off-putting for me.” And certain kinds of rejections are quite painful, like if someone says, “Oh, I wanted to connect with you because I wanted a job on your team,” and it’s like, “But I’m not hiring, so this is going to be painful for everybody involved.”

So, it’s really, really good to be upfront and to create that clarity for people so they can be comfortable, or they can do something. If they can’t help you, maybe they can tell you. Like, I love it when people actually tell me what they’re looking for because sometimes I can’t help them but I know someone who can, and so I can kind of redirect you to the person who can actually help you, which also feels good.

So, that’s one of those “You made it weird” where it’s not kind of coming out with it what it is that you’re seeking. Another “You made it weird” that it is just absolutely tragic is when people apologize constantly when asking for help because it’s sort of ruins it. Giving help is very satisfying, innately satisfying to do things that benefit other people. But there’s a lot of research that shows that you can kind of spoil it by either kind of making people feel coerced, so making people feel like they didn’t have a choice but to help you. That’s never a good thing.

And then the other thing is by constantly apologizing because, when you think about it, people ask you for help, and they say things like, “Oh, I hate that I have to ask you for this. I feel so terrible. I’m just so embarrassed that I have to ask you for this support.” And it’s like, “How am I supposed to enjoy this now?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true, “You hate this and you’re embarrassed. This is real fun for me.”

Heidi Grant
Like, “If you hate having to ask me, if you feel terrible but I’m supposed to feel good.” So, a lot of times that’s another “You made it weird” where we were apologizing because we don’t want the person to think badly of us, but all we’re really doing is ruining it for them because they never thought badly about you in the first place.

Again, a common misconception that people will think less of you because you need support. Actually, if anything, the research suggests that people think more highly of people who are willing to ask for help and support because they feel like that’s a sign of confidence, where people are willing to be vulnerable in that way.

Like, we admire people who are authentic and vulnerable, and say, like, “Yeah, I’m not perfect. I could actually use…” or, “I have too much on my plate, and I need your support.” We admire people who do that. So, we tend to actually think more highly of them but we’re so convinced that people will think less of us that we get into this word apology game. And all of that is just based on, really, honestly, foundationally a failure of perspective-taking.

We do a very, very bad job at ima gining what the situation is like from the helper’s perspective. And if we could just pause and…but it’s weird because we are all helpers. So, if you just took a minute to say, “How would I feel being asked for this help? How would I feel about it? What would I think of this person?” then you have a pretty good gauge of what they think of you, and it’s pretty positive actually. But we just don’t do that perspective-taking and so we make it weird over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, the “You make it weird,” I’m also thinking about just that theme associated with destroying the opportunity for joy in that helping exchange. It’s like robbing them of that joy.

Heidi Grant
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m reminded when I was in Prague, we were at a bar, and I had purchased a beer, and I was ready to give, leave the change type tip to the bartender. And so, she took the coin and she extended her hand toward me, and then brought it back, almost like a fishing reel, and said, “For me to keep?” And I was like, “Well, I was planning on doing that but, now, when you did this, I don’t feel as great about doing it,” but I’m not going to say, “No, no, not for you to keep.” I was like, “Okay, sure.” Whereas, before, I would’ve felt great, like, “Well, hey, that’s yours, and you should say thank you,” and then we would’ve had a fun moment.

Heidi Grant
So, here, this is one of those things. So, there are techniques, and people will always say, like, “Are there things you can do to get people to help you?” like kind of forced compliance. And, yes, there are, frankly. There’s all kinds of tricks you can use that make people more likely to say yes, that are also more likely to make them feel coerced. They make them feel like they didn’t have a choice.

So, what happens is they will say yes in that moment, and then the other thing that happens is they will never say yes again. So, it’s interesting. In the case of the bartender, did she get the tip? Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
She did, yeah.

Heidi Grant
But she might’ve gotten another one, like, later on. Like, if you were like, “Oh, I really love this bartender, and I’m here and I’m having another drink.” So, helping and support can delightfully build on itself and be reciprocal, or it can just happen the one time, and then that person is done with you because you made them feel coerced. So, that’s another thing, that’s a really common mistake people make.

If the one time is all that matters, fine. But if you really want to have an ongoing relationship that has mutual ongoing support in it, you really do want to use the techniques that I’m talking about which are the ones that make people feel really glad that they helped you, very satisfied, very effective in giving that help that really lands when they can imagine.

This is another thing, honestly. If someone helps you, one of the most impactful things you can do is go back and tell them about the impact they had, not as a gratitude per se, although gratitude is lovely, but, again, related to that effectiveness idea, like, “The help you gave me had these results.” Because if you do that, if you go back and you help people understand the impact that their help had, that is a well that you can turn to again and again because that person will love helping you in the future because you made them feel very, very effective as a helper. You really ramped up that warm glow. And I think that’s a mistake we often make.

I was a college professor for years. I wrote tons of letters of recommendation to medical school, graduate school, law school. Probably 5% of those students actually came back to tell me whether or not they actually got into the program. And, for me, that was the moment that was very rewarding, knowing that I had helped them to actually achieve the goal. But, too often, people don’t circle back, and you’re really missing an opportunity to create an ongoing supportive relationship with someone when you don’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. So, then we’ve got some great principles in mind and some key don’ts as well. I’d love it if you could give us a demonstration or share any favorite phrases so we can make this come to life with actual verbiage.

Heidi Grant
The truth is there are not really sort of magical words to use about this because it really is just about candor. It’s that sort of taking a deep breath and saying, “Okay, I’m going to just be honest. This is the help that I need. I need it from you. This specifically is the thing that I’m looking for. And this is the reason why, this is the impact it’s going to have on my life if you do this. This is the impact it’s going to have.”

And it can be as simple as coming home to your partner, and saying, “I know that I’m usually the one that handles the recycling but I would really like it if you would chip in and maybe we could take turns because that would give me one last thing to do, and that would kind of make me feel a little bit more supported at home.” Okay, great. Like, it’s very specific.

If you come home to your partner, and you say, “I’d love you to do more around the house,” don’t expect anything to happen. First of all, if you say nothing, I promise you, nothing will happen. If you say nothing and you’re just going to passively-aggressively sigh a lot, your partner is not…

Pete Mockaitis
“She should know.”

Heidi Grant
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“She should know.”

Heidi Grant
Yeah, your partner is not going to pick up on that. If you do the only slightly better thing, which is, “I need your help around the house,” that’s probably not going to work either because, again, what specifically do you need? The more specific we are about exactly what it is we want the person to do, both the more effective they feel doing it and the more likely they are to actually do it because, again, it’s that allusion of transparency.

If say, “I need more help from you around the house,” and you fold some towels, you might feel like, “I have achieved what she wanted.” And it’s like, “I kind of was looking for something more than that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Mission accomplished.

Heidi Grant
Exactly, “I feel so satisfied.” So, it is that asking explicitly, being very, very clear about what it is you’re looking for. And then, by the way, when they do the thing, coming back and saying, like, “Wow, that really made a difference. I really thank you so much for making that effort. This made a huge difference in how I feel. Coming home, I feel so much more supported, etc.”

So, it’s just that simple and it’s really not complicated but we avoid it so much and we tell ourselves so many things that aren’t true. I think 90% of the obstacle is getting the myths out of the way, that people are going to say no, that they somehow intuitively know what it is we need them to do, that they know the impact they’ve had. Once you realize none of those things are true, then you really do know what to do differently.

And I will say that, to the extent that I don’t ask for help, it isn’t because I feel uncomfortable anymore. It’s more that I just sometimes forget to. You can get so used to operating as “independent” – I’m air-quoting right now. You can get so used to not asking for help that even when you’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of it, the challenge becomes breaking that habit of just doing everything on your own.

And so, I find nowadays, for me, I have very little problem asking for help, but I do find myself sometimes kind of full-speeding ahead on things and trying to do too much myself, and it’s just more that I didn’t recognize the moment where I should’ve asked for help. I should’ve stopped and said, “Hey, this is too much. I could use some help from somebody else.”

So, that’s another piece of it I’m realizing as a person who is kind of trying to change my habits about this, that it is a habit to not ask for help, and that, therefore, like any habit, it can be difficult to replace it with a better one and build that new muscle. So, that’s something that, since I’ve written the book, I’m in the process of doing, sort of rewiring my habits a little bit.

Before I am overwhelmed and exhausted, I ask for help instead of after I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, which used to be my cue to ask for help. So, being a little more proactive about that is part of what I’m currently working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Thank you. Now, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite things. Favorite book?

Heidi Grant
Oh, a favorite book. Well, probably The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve read it a million times.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Heidi Grant
I’m still a Post-it person.

My desk right now is littered in Post-it notes, which I know is really old school, and I know that there’s apps that could do this for me, and also all kinds of programs, but I really love the tangible nature of a Post-it, and I really love how satisfying it is to cross things off a Post-it, and then throw it away. That’s the problem with files on a computer. You just can’t have that “I am done with you” moment, where you toss it because you’ve actually completed the task that was on the Post-it, so I do love, I love my Post-it notes very much.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Heidi Grant
Talking about growth mindset and this idea, the sort of background narrative that you have when you approach a task really changes how you approach it. So, growth mindset, basically, is saying, “The point of what I’m doing is to develop, is to improve.” And fixed mindset is really, “The point of what I’m doing is to prove myself, to prove that I’m already good at this thing.”

And how I orient myself, so when I catch myself in sort of a fixed mindset, and I’m approaching something as if the point is to prove myself, and I want to shift into growth mindset, the thing I say to myself, everybody has a thing they say, the thing I say is, “It’s not about being good. It’s about getting better.” And that’s my little mantra that I shift.

After 20 years of doing this stuff, I occasionally catch myself in the mindset I don’t want to be in, and to shift back, I say, “It’s not about being good. It’s about getting better.” And that has been one that people have repeated back to me or I see it tweeted a lot when I’m giving a talk on growth mindset, that it just sort of encapsulates.

I think one of the most powerfully things you can do for yourself motivationally is remember that in every particular moment that you’re in, it can be an opportunity to judge yourself or it can be an opportunity to develop yourself. And the more we can see what we do as opportunities to develop ourselves, the more resilient, creative, and high-performing we are.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Heidi Grant
Well, first, I would point them to my website, so it’s HeidiGrantPhD.com where there’s a ton of stuff, videos, articles that I’ve written and links to them. I write a lot for HBR so you can also find a lot of my blog posts there on various topics. But HeidiGrantPhD.com is a great place to start.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Heidi Grant
I think that idea that going to your job every day, looking for those opportunities to end up better at something than you were before, the more you can do that, and often we don’t think of our jobs that way. We think of our jobs as places where “I’m constantly proving myself.” What we don’t realize is that a lot of it is in your head.

That particular attitude, I try every day to look for ways, even in the tedious aspects of my job, that I feel like I can be better at something today than I was the day before. And the more we do that, the more it engages us, it sustains us, it makes us creative, it makes us feel effective, and it helps us to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Heidi, thank you. This is great stuff. I wish you much luck and much health coming your way.

Heidi Grant
Thank you so much, Pete.

758: How to Thrive and Succeed Through Authentic Grit with Caroline Miller

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Caroline Miller talks about why gritty people achieve more success–and how you can be one too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why grit is essential to success 
  2. How humility cultivates grit
  3. Why everyone needs a mastermind group 

About Caroline

For three decades, Caroline has been a pioneer with her groundbreaking work in the areas of goal setting, grit, happiness and success. She is recognized as one of the world’s leading positive psychology experts on this research and how it can be applied to one’s life for maximum transformation, flourishing and growth. 

Caroline helps people identify, come up with a plan for, and persist in pursuing their toughest goals — leading to their success, happiness and flourishing, while inspiring those around them. Achieving hard, meaningful goals is one of the most rewarding things we can do in both our personal and professional lives. 

A Harvard graduate with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, she has authored seven books including Creating Your Best Life and Getting Grit. 

Resources Mentioned

Caroline Miller Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Caroline, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Caroline Miller
Thanks for having me. I’m so excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited, too. I want to hear all about your wisdom when it comes to grit. And, first, I want to hear about how you apply it in your own world. You are an expert in goal accomplishment, a top-rank master swimmer, have a blackbelt in Hapkido. It seems like you’re walking your talk. Is there a key insight or learning that has been super transformational and useful for you across these different domains?

Caroline Miller
Well, the one you didn’t mention is the one that actually taught me grit, and that was I overcame bulimia at a time when it was thought to be impossible and we were considered unhelp-ables and it was a death sentence. And I learned how to overcome bulimia one day at a time and I wrote the first book by anybody who overcame bulimia and lived to tell the story. That book, My Name is Caroline, is still in print, but, really, that’s what taught me grit, and it also taught me that joy comes from helping other people to have grit. So, that’s the most important thing I learned from getting better and staying better, actually, all these years.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you said that joy comes from grit and teaching others to have grit.

Caroline Miller
Yeah, I was told something very important early in my recovery, which was you can’t keep what you don’t give away, “It’s great, Caroline, that you’re getting better, it’s great that you’re overcoming this eating disorder, and you found time and you’ve got joy and you’ve got your life back, and you’re not lying and stealing and whatever, but who are you helping?”

And I really do believe grit is only useful when it’s actually uplifting other people as well, when they witness acts of grit that they ask themselves, “What if I live like that? What if I took those kinds of risks? What if I left it all on the floor?” So, I think grit is only good when it’s not just a self-focused behavior, when the behavior itself actually makes other people want to be better as well. And I think that was the most important thing I learned ever in life, and it guides everything I do.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s awesome for the other people and it’s also awesome for you. Can you share, is it just because of the purpose and the joy and the motivation that that unleashes? Or is it because of sort of an accountability effect, like, “Oh, Caroline is the role model. I don’t want to slip up”? Or, how does that work internally?

Caroline Miller
Well, so this is where my fifth book, Creating Your Best Life, comes in. So, I went back to UPenn and got a master’s degree in Positive Psychology in 2005, just really lucky. One of the first 32 people in the world to get it. It was there that I discovered that happiness precedes all success, and that all goal-setting has to be preceded by emotional flourishing. And that’s where I learned that real joy came from helping other people to accomplish their goals as well.

And so, what’s important to me is that when I am gritty, when I am pursuing really hard goals, it really helps that other people know about my goals, the right people, and that it gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment that is just not available when all you focus on is yourself, “And what am I doing? And where am I going? And what school am I in? What job do I have? What do I make?”

And so, I think the biggest shift in the 20th century, kind of the law of attraction approach to goal-setting, and grit, etc., has been to the 21st century of it’s not about self-help. It’s about helping other people as well. And so, I think that it wasn’t possible for me to keep any of these things until I turned and gave them away to other people.

And so, that’s really what I’ve learned in life, but also, through the research, I learned at UPenn and afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Cool. Well, that’s a powerful lesson right there. And let’s hear, how would you articulate sort of the key thesis in your book Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose? What’s kind of the big idea here?

Caroline Miller
The big idea is that you can cultivate grit, and everyone should cultivate grit. I think this is a quality that is not a nice-to-have. It’s a need-to-have. And as a mother, I have served my three children, growing up in the DC area, having all competition stripped out of their lives. It was, “Everybody has won and everyone must have prizes.” They got rid of valedictorians, they got rid of fun runs, but I just couldn’t get over the trophies my children accumulated by the age of 17, that when we threw them out, no one even noticed.

And so, what I think is most important is that you need to cultivate grit because every night, we scan our days for what we did that day that was hard, and we do it without even knowing we’re doing it because those are the things that give us pride. Those are the things that give us a sense of self-accomplishment, self-efficacy, and in order to do hard things, you have to cultivate grit because the hardest goals and the most satisfying goals are outside of your comfort zone. And we have an entire generation that grew up having those lessons forcibly taken out of their schools, their activities, and elsewhere.

And so, the thesis is grit really matters, but you can learn how to have it. It’s not something that’s specially born to Olympians. It’s out there for the taking but you have to cultivate the qualities that build it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, that’s an interesting notion that you say, before we go to bed, our brains scan through the day and think about, “What hard thing did we do?” and then we feel pride associated with it. I think that’s interesting in that, as I think about my own days, I really do want to have some victories. And it’s interesting in my own brain, like, what counts in terms of a win or doing a hard thing. Like, Caroline, I just love chatting with you and guests, and learning stuff, like it’s almost too easy in that it doesn’t require much, I don’t know, hustle, kind of sacrifice, “Oh, let’s get through this.” It’s like, “No, this is going to be a blast.”

So, in a way, this is, I hope, a very meaningful contribution to tens of thousands of listeners, who think, “Oh, this is really useful insights. Thanks, Caroline and Pete. This will give my life a little upgrade.” That’s kind of what we’re going for. So, in a way, that certainly “counts” as an achievement but it doesn’t feel like it counts, to me, as a hard thing that I did. It’s sort of like, “I just did that thing I love doing.” So, what do you think about this?

Caroline Miller
Okay. So, there’s something called goal-setting theory, it’s Locke and Latham, and so that was kind of stuck in academia till they brought it out and put it in Creating Your Best Life. And that ends up being the first evidence-based goal-setting book, which is still amazing to me. But what’s really important is that goals, or learning goals, and performance goals, and you have to know the difference and you have to pursue your goals in different ways, depending on whether you’re doing it for the first time and learning how to do it, or it’s something you’ve done before.

And this is something you’ve obviously done before over and over and over again. You are in the midst of executing a performance goal. It’s a checklist approach, like a pilot taking off in a plane. This is not hard for you anymore is my guess, so I’m not going to think that, at the end of the day, you’ve scanned your day, and said, “What did I do today that was really hard outside of my comfort zone?” I think this is a huge contribution. It’s an intrinsic goal, obviously, but is it outside your comfort zone? Only you know that, but my guess would be no.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I mean, Caroline, you might pull some tricks that make me a little uncomfortable. We’ll see where this goes. But, generally, no. It’s sort of like, “Hey, we’re going to have a fun conversation, learn some stuff, and this is what I like doing, and done it 700 times so it’s all good.”

Caroline Miller
What is the hardest thing that you did yesterday?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see. In the gym, I did some things that were a little bit harder and different than what I’m accustomed to in terms of going longer, so that was something. My toddlers made a big old mess across the whole house.

Caroline Miller
Parenting is hard.

Pete Mockaitis
It took me a while…my wife and I, a good while to reset that back to proper when I was tired and just sort of wanted to go to bed. So, it’s funny, those things come to mind. Whereas, work wasn’t too tricky. I was at the bank for a while, chatting with bank people. They’re very friendly.

Caroline Miller
Work is pleasure, right? When you find the thing you’re passionate about, you can be in flow, and it’s not as much of a challenge as maybe it was in the beginning when you’re learning what kind of microphone to get, how do you prepare your guests for an interview, how do you make sure it goes smoothly, etc.

But the two things you just mentioned, parenting and parenting well, and being in the gym, going out of your comfort zone, using the quality of self-regulation or willpower, that is really an important ingredient in cultivating what I call authentic grit. You have to have the ability to delay gratification so, at the end of the day, when we’ve often delayed gratification, had the humility to be learners, not the arrogance that we know it all. And we’ve gone out and maybe used a trainer. That takes a certain amount of humility.

Those are the things that, at the end of the day, they build emotional muscle but they also build physical muscle, and those are some of the most important ingredients of really good grit. And humility was my big surprise. There’s so much research on humility but I don’t think most people understand that humility is a quality that you see in the kind of grit that makes people push through all kinds of discomfort, all kinds of people questioning their goal, making fun of them, many dark nights of the soul.

People don’t always understand, grit is not resilience. Resilience is short-term discomfort, getting through something. Grit, the idea of grit is it’s baked into it, that this is a long-term goal. This is something you’re going to have a lot of setbacks, a lot of challenges, a lot of the dark nights of the soul. And the humility of just one day at a time, learning from others, learning from failure, having patience and persistence and purposes, “This is my goal. This isn’t my mother’s goal. This isn’t my husband’s goal, my parents’ goal, my teachers’ goal. None of that. This is my goal.”

And that purpose, that intrinsic purpose is what allows people to continue to cultivate grit. When I overcame my eating disorder, it was really one of the first things I had ever taken on as a huge goal where there’s a good chance I was going to fail. I tried to get better but I wasn’t ever able to get better nor did I know anyone else who had either. So, for me, that was the hardest, biggest goal but I did it because I wanted to live and I didn’t want to die.

I was a newlywed who had hit her last bottom at the age of 22, a Harvard graduate whose biggest secret was my bulimia. It had killed my swimming career. It took so much from my life. But because it was my goal, I was able to cultivate grit by just, one day at a time, doing what I had to do to delay gratification, surround myself with good people, the right people, and just move patiently to the finish line, which I did.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you expand upon how humility is helpful in grit and goal achievement?

Caroline Miller
So, there are two kinds of humility. There is social humility, the ability to step back in a conversation or any kind of environment, and let somebody else get all the air time, be the star. You don’t have to be the star of every conversation or every setting, so there is social humility, and it’s called one of the most important lubricants of being in a relationship.

And then there’s intellectual humility. You know that you don’t know everything. You’re very comfortable being surrounded by people who can teach you things. And so, that kind of humility is what gives people access to learning from really good people, from knowing that you can build bridges and not have to be the hog all the time and other people can shine. They want to be part of your team when you’re going for something hard because they know that you’ll be there for them as well.

What’s very interesting, also, and this is something I’ve been focused on the last couple of years, is humility cuts in different ways for men and women. Women who exhibit humility in the workplace often get run over by colleagues. And I’ve coached a number of CEOs, who are women, who have humility in their top five. I talk about the VIA Character Strength test. That’s my go-to test. It’s free. I love it. It’s just fabulous.

But when you have humility somewhere in your top five, it doesn’t always work well for women, but it is a great quality for grit. In the workplace, you can be seen as a pushover, but in terms of your own personal goals, humility is a really good rocket fuel for being able to stay the course with your own important goals.

Pete Mockaitis
And is that sort of because it’s like, “Hmm, all right, it looks like I need some help here,” or, “Hmm, looks like I need to change my approach. Like, what I’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” as opposed to, “No, I conquer all and I shall defeat this, too”?

Caroline Miller
Yeah. And so, when you interview great athletes, my great uncles were Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medalists, and this was true of them as it is true of all kinds of athletes that we all know or have seen on television or read about. They don’t want to win against bad players, bad teams. They want to win against the best. They want to know that when they went out and they conquered the world or set a world record or did the best they could, that it was not against people who were weaker than them, not as effective as them; it was the best.

And so, that is one of the signs of truly elite athletes is they have the humility to know that they want to play against the better people because they’ll learn if they lose, but they also know if they won, they truly won in the best possible way in the best possible arena that tested them.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Oh, what’s most important is the win itself.” I think there are some who just like the winning more than the learning, and so it’s like if they can have easier…I’ve talked to some gamers. I don’t know, this is a weird example. But this always surprised me from video gamers. They’re like, “Oh, I hate this new skill-based matching where they put me with other good people,” or, “I want to beat all the Christmas noobs who get the game on Christmas for the first time.”

And I found that surprising, like, “Don’t you want to play other people who are excellent, who challenge you to do your very best?” And they’re like, “No, I take delight in just slaughtering the less skilled and experienced.” And I find that kind of curious.

Caroline Miller
Well, so that’s what Carol Dweck at Stanford calls a “fixed mindset.” And, unfortunately, that has become such a defining criteria for the generation that grew up where we were all told to make our kids happy, “Just tell them they’re great. Give them what they want. Make them happy. And if they’re happy, they’re going to have confidence and high self-esteem.”

And the truth of the matter is, and the results are in on this movement where everyone got trophies, and everyone was told they were the next Picasso, is that we created more narcissists and sociopaths than we did people who had confidence who would go out with a work ethic and they were willing to start at the bottom.

This is where you are afraid to burst your bubble of believing that you are all that, so you stay inside this little fixed arena, and you only do things where you know you can’t lose, you can’t be shown up, you can’t be seen as stupid. A growth mindset is everything is something you can learn from, “I will grow my intelligence. I will grow my skills.” And that kind of mindset is the kind of mindset that leads to a flourishing life.

So, you don’t want to play small, but that’s one of the things that we’ve seen coming out of the self-esteem parenting movement, and that’s really the millennials, not all millennials, but, generally, psychologists and sociologists found that this is a generation that didn’t really climb trees, they didn’t break their legs, they didn’t go and start businesses. Entrepreneurship went down 9% in this phase. Traveling with comfort animals, pigs, turkeys. The things that I chronicled in Getting Grit were hysterical.

I was interviewing flight attendants who told me about all these comfort animals that would show up in the plane, and they knew. They knew from looking at the person who brought the animal on, they knew if it was a real support animal or not by how they made contact with the pet. But we became a generation that, basically, said you can never ever feel uncomfortable. Trigger warnings everywhere. It really went too far. As a result, we paid the price.

The average male marathoner got slower by 42 minutes because there was no real metric by which to measure yourself if everyone got a trophy. It’s fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I was hoping that maybe more newbie runners picked up the sport. And call me a growth mindset practitioner.

Caroline Miller
That did happen.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Maybe we just had more newbs who were getting started, and we can celebrate that,” or maybe, I don’t know where I got that thought. I don’t know.

Caroline Miller
But that was celebrated. Both happened. It’s not either/or, it’s both and. So, the color runs did bring more people in where there were no times. You just had paint thrown at you. That was fun. It did make a lot of people more fun. However, there was a cost at the other end, which was without any real celebrating of elite athletes. I mean, remember I had said this a little earlier, but it still surprises me.

A lot of schools, including my kids’ high school, got rid of valedictorians and any kind of class rankings because it made people feel bad. So, I think that there was a cost on either end. And I’ll say there’s a bad kind of grit that takes shortcuts to get all the glory, that people with really true grit earn because they do the hard work, they slogged through difficulties. I call it faux grit, people who take shortcuts or who lie about their achievements so that they will get other people to admire them.

The most egregious thing I found in my chapter that I wrote about faux grit is the opening to that chapter. And I write about there’s this committee in the US government that exists only to find people who pretend they’re medal of honor winners, only to pretend they’re medal of honor winners. Now this is the highest award given out in the US military, and you only get it for extraordinary valor. It’s so rare. But people buy it on eBay, they buy it at flea markets, and they just want people to think they’re all that, that they have grit.

If you take a shortcut, if you have a fixed mindset, but you want people to think you’re really made of tough stuff, go out of your comfort zone and prove it. You’ll feel better at the end of the day and you’ll have something to build upon that will take you to even better places after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’m all hung up on this medal of honor story. So, there is a governmental committee who, like, hunts down the fakers. And what do they do? Do they prosecute them? What goes down?

Caroline Miller
I don’t think they prosecute them but they strip it off their resumes.

Pete Mockaitis
They just say, “Cut it out, buddy.”

Caroline Miller
I think they fine them. I think you get a stiff fine. And so, I live in Washington, DC, just outside Washington, DC, and there was just a Flight of Valor that came to Washington this week, and it was four medal of honor winners. And, yeah, they were met at the airport with a parade. And when they were on the plane, there was a water cannon salute. This is how people feel about people who throw their bodies on grenades and IEDs.

There was this one helicopter pilot who was honored. In Vietnam, he rescued 73 fellow soldiers under fire. That’s a medal of honor performance. So, I am deeply offended, and I didn’t serve in the military but I am deeply offended that people would try to proclaim that is something they had earned but this is, again, something we’d seen as a result of this, “All have won and all must have prizes.” We’re seeing people faking their PhD research. We’re seeing companies like Enron, for God’s sake.

When people came to look at Enron, and see “Is this a company I want to invest in?” They had an entire floor at Enron devoted to fake phones, fake traders all just on the phone pretending to take orders. It was all fake. Wherever you see that kind of made-up environment, you see what I call faux grit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so we’ve got a nice litany of stuff that’s not working so well when it comes to developing grit. And when it comes to the best practices that do develop grit, we talked about doing the hard thing daily. And I don’t know if you have any particulars or suggestions or prescriptions or protocol there. But, yeah, maybe more about that or some additional things that make a boatload of difference in terms of us developing grit.

Caroline Miller
Well, there was an exercise that came about during the Oprah years, three blessings, three things I’m grateful for. I did a twist on that and I created a worksheet just called three hard things. I think we all need to train ourselves to do hard things. So, I just think everybody, at the end of every day, should say, “What did I do today that was hard?” I think that’s very important to build that muscle.

The second is to take a look at the relationships, the people around you, because grit is contagious. And we know this because Angela Duckworth has studied the cadets at West Point, and they found that grit became the determining factor of whether or not someone dropped out of Beast Barracks, that first summer where the cadets are just pushed past all their physical and emotional limits. It wasn’t about their GPA or anything else. It was grit that ended up being that determinant.

And she studied the cadets, and she found that if you had a low-grit score, they would room you with a higher-grit score cadet. Why? Because when we’re around people who have the right kind of grit, they awe and inspire us. So, take a look at the people around you. What are they pursuing? What is their metric for success?

Nicholas Christakis’ research on social contagion also found that quitting smoking is contagious as is gaining weight. Behaviors become contagious. If you want to accomplish something difficult, you really need to take a look at who are the people around you who help you to catch and perform the behaviors that either have patience, humility, do hard things, have a certain amount of passion for something, not just a bunch of interests that are all over the place. So, that’s another thing.

And I also think people should get used to just finishing things. If you start a recipe, follow all the directions. If you’re on the treadmill and you put in 45 minutes, don’t get off at 40. Start to build the expectation that you are a finisher. And there is a word in Chinese chi ku, I’m sure I’m pronouncing it incorrectly, but chi ku, basically, means eating bitter.

And so, in China, the expectation by the parents is “We presume our children are strong,” and they’re so perplexed that, in the United States, we presume children are fragile, that we must protect them from things they don’t want to hear, things they don’t want to do. It’s really interesting and I think we have to presume strength in ourselves and the people who depend upon us to be their role model, their parents, and we really have gotten away from that.

But the flourishing life is not the easy life. It’s the life where you go out and you do hard things for the right reasons. And in the process, awe and inspire other people to ask themselves, “Well, what if I live like that, too? What if I took those kinds of risks? What if I had that kind of dignity and self-respect that made other people want to be like me?”

There’s a story I had in Getting Grit that I love to tell, and that is of an Iraq war veteran, Kevin Downs, who came back from the Iraq war, basically, almost a paraplegic. He was in a Humvee that ran over an IED, and the other five people in the Humvee died, and he lived, but he lived with a lot of mangled limbs. And he went back home to Harpeth, Tennessee where he was a three-sport athlete in high school, and he didn’t know what he was waking up for anymore. His purpose had been duty to our country. He felt committed to the military and he felt like he was doing something good.

He got discharged and he’s back in bed, disabled, and he gets the idea “I know what I can wake up for. I will offer to cut the grass at the high school because I was a football player, and this is the time of year when they need the grass cut.” He called the high school, he said, “Do you mind if I come cut the grass? I just want to feel useful again.”

And here’s the important point of the story. This disabled veteran, without giving a speech, without getting a trophy, I don’t even think he got paid, riding a lawnmower, impacted all of the youth who watched him. And so, I saw the football coach from that high school interviewed on ESPN, and he made this observation, “Every single teenage boy on my football team who had been whining about two-a-days, about heat, about bugs, about not wanting to be there, about how hard it was, stopped whining in the presence of this veteran cutting the grass.”

And I really sat back when I heard that story, and I thought, “This really does show that the right kind of good grit is contagious and it makes other people want to be better.” That’s the point of grit, to make other people want to be better as well. It’s not enough for us to do hard things, our own intrinsic goals. What about you can’t keep what you don’t give away? Role model the behavior that will make the next generation and the people around you better as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that is meta. It’s inspiring about inspiration. And it really is interesting how you think about…I’m trying to think about how to integrate that into my own goals, like, in such a way that they can be inspiring for others but also not, like, you’re tooting your own horn, like, “Isn’t this awesome, the thing that I did?” I don’t know if we’re at the gym, it’s like, “Behold my perfected body.” That’s not probably ideal for a tone or inspiration.

Caroline Miller
That’s selfie-grit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Caroline Miller
That’s when you are telling everybody about how tough you are. If you don’t mind me just saying, I think the longevity of your show and the excellence that was asked of me, sending me a free microphone so that your show would be as excellent as possible, the reminders I got told me that you have a standard of excellence for your show and your guests that I don’t think I’ve ever had in many, many, many years of lots and lots of interviews.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks.

Caroline Miller
I think, without you actually saying that, you are demonstrating grit. This is what an excellent show with high standards can accomplish. We can impact a lot of people and give them the tools to have a better, more awesome life. So, I think you are demonstrating grit. It’s just that people take for granted when they do it because, quite often, they don’t realize that what they’re doing in their own humble way is having an impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I think that’s a beautiful point right there, and I guess there have been studies associated with the more that we can connect with the beneficiaries of the work we do, the more that connects us to purpose and energy and stuff. And sometimes I do trout out favorite bits of feedback from listeners. One of my favorites was, “I wake up early so I can listen to it twice.” One of my favorites. Thank you, Ashley.

Caroline Miller
No, I think you probably do more than you think you do. But I think everybody should ask themselves, “Am I doing something hard and doing it in a way that would make other people want to be better as well?” When I’d looked at history, I found, at every turning point in history, there was one figure who stood apart, who caused history to take a left turn, and those were people who had, what I call, this authentic grit.

And it was because of how they did these hard things, the Martin Luther Kings, the Greta Thunbergs, the Malala Yousafzai, it’s how they did them with dignity, with self-respect, with passion, it made them have followers. And that’s where history changed. Good grit changes the world. Bad grit repels people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we talked about doing the hard things, we’ve talked about finding the inspiration, how that impacts other people. Any other top do’s and don’ts when it comes to getting gritty?

Caroline Miller
Well, I do think it’s important to really take a very hard look at the people around you. And I just got a special callout to the women because there’s research by Shelly Gable at the University of California Santa Barbara that’s probably my most referred to research. It’s where you see the shade snap in people’s eyes and the lights go on, and they realize that they’ve been tolerating disrespect possibly, which is keeping them from being gritty or accomplishing their goals.

Her research says this, “There is only one right way to respond to another person’s goals or dreams or saying that they’ve succeeded at something, and that is with curiosity and enthusiasm.” And that is a Rorschach test for whether or not a person who’s around you should remain in your life, in close contact with you. And women admit to being surrounded, 84% of women say they’re surrounded by frenemies, friends who are enemies.

And why do women do this? Why do women have passive-aggressive or passive-destructive comments and behavior? Because they think if they actually clear the space for themselves, they’ll be seen as not nice. And even worst than that, one of the only changes that hasn’t taken place in the workplace for women is how we perceive women who are goal-directed and agentic.

So, boys grow up hearing stories of being agentic. They see football teams, baseball teams, they see men pursuing goals. We don’t really see that as much for girls. And so, what we know is that women are told stories of a sisterhood and best friend and helping others, and so women really need to take a look at when you share that good news with your friend, your sister, your mother, your cousin, your co-worker, and you are proud of it, was their curiosity and enthusiasm, did they hit like on LinkedIn? Or, did they just go quiet?

And Shelly Gable found that the most common thing women do is they go quiet, which is actually the cruelest thing that you can do to another woman’s success. Why? Because, sure, men do it, but it doesn’t impact men the way it impacts women because we’re wired for the tend-and-befriend response. Oxytocin is released when women are connected and they do good things for each other.

And so, what happens when women go silent, which is where the whole mean girl thing, mean moms comes from, is women feel like they’re in existential hell. It’s almost as if they’ve died. And I’m on a mission now to make sure that women get into mastermind groups. If you want to do hard things, build a mastermind group with people who are active-constructive responders and share your hardest goals in the company of those people where they won’t interrupt you, they won’t mansplain you, they’ll let you be an expert, and they’ll cheer you on.

And the research shows that when you’re in a group like that, you take more risks. But so many women play small because they don’t know who has their back. In fact, Madeleine Albright just died as we’re doing this interview. I grew up seeing Madeleine Albright. She was a mother I was in close proximity to. And I’ll never forget how mean the other mothers were to her. She has given interviews most of her life about the mothers I grew up with. I know who she’s talking about. She said they were horrible. They were cruel. They would ask her about her fruitcake recipe and not about the doctorate she had just received.

And so, I think we have to be really, really thoughtful about, “Are we truly, truly supporting women as they succeed and as they pursue hard goals?” So, when you said, “Is there something else?” Yes, look at the quality of the people around you. Are they active-constructive responders when you share your good news? And for women, it’s even more important because the research shows that most women do surround themselves with frenemies, and the first response you get when you share a piece of good news, the first person you share it with, his or her response may cause you to give up that goal in the next week.

Imagine. Imagine that. The impact other people have on us. And so, anyway, that’s another point that I really just wanted to drive home when you asked.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, that is powerful. And now that you’ve got my antenna up, curiosity and enthusiasm, and “Am I seeing that?” Boy, huge things are coming to mind here. Well, one, accountability groups have been huge for me in terms of just general life goals, like folks help support each other as I’ve done that in different roommates or men’s group settings.

And then, specifically in podcasting, I’ve got a mastermind group. Every one of them have been a guest on the show, and vice versa. And it’s been exactly what you say with regard to taking those risks because we’re like we feel it’s like, “Is this priced too high? I don’t know if I could ask for that much.” “Like, yes, you absolutely can.” It’s like, “Ooh, should I follow up again on this opportunity? I don’t want to be a pest?” It’s like, “Yes, you absolutely…”

Like, a lot of the conversations are associated with, “Ooh, I feel kind of uncomfortable and nervous about this thing,” and they’re like, “Yup, that’s normal, and that’s what needs to happen and you can do it. Go for it. You’re overthinking this, you’re, whatever.” And so, that’s just been huge and I’m a big advocate for mastermind groups.

Caroline Miller
And most women are not in one, and they don’t know how to form one. And that’s why Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion is so interesting because she just had that book come out in the last year, radical self-compassion for women. And she said that being in a group like this, doing anything for yourself is considered a radical act of self-compassion because women, again, are cultured to take care of other people not themselves.

And I think this is where some of these passive-aggressive, passive-destructive behavior comes from. That’s why I wrote a short e-book, it’s available for purchase and download on my website. I think it’s the most important thing I may have ever written. It’s only 43 pages but I laid out the case for why every woman needs to be in a very strategically formed mastermind group. But, also, why do we do this to each other? We do do it to each other.

I’m not letting men off the hook for centuries and lots of really misbehavior, but we’re shooting at each other inside the tent. And, to me, that is partly why women have not made the strides we thought we would’ve made by now, and we haven’t. When Adam Grant sent me that research, showing that in companies, some of the mentoring that some of the women say they’re doing could not be matched with who are the mentees, I came up with a word that I thought would take care of this mentorship sponsorship dilemma that isn’t really producing the results we’re looking for in great numbers – and that is ampliship.

And that’s something Madeleine Albright was great at. Amplify the good news, the goals, and the success of other women with witnesses, because if it didn’t have a witness, it didn’t happen. That’s what I think, and that’s why some of this research was stopped in these companies because they couldn’t find the mentees.

So, anyway, women need to be in mastermind groups, but not any old mastermind groups, but a very carefully formed mastermind group with certain guidelines. So, that’s my clarion call. All women, please, value yourself and your goals highly enough to get the support from other women who have your back, you know who they are, giving you the guideline, active-constructive responding, learn about goal-setting theory, which is so important.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, Caroline, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Caroline Miller
I want to thank you for this opportunity to share this because, as you can tell, I’m very passionate about it and you don’t reach out and ask anybody. I appreciate the fact that you thought I did good enough work to ask me, so thank you very much. My work speaks for itself. And I can be found on my website.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. All right. Well, now let’s hear about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Caroline Miller
My favorite quote is “Ignorance shouts. Wisdom whispers.” I think that says a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe you’ve already mentioned it, but a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Caroline Miller
I think Shelly Gable’s work on active-constructive responding, and the name of her research is “What happens between friends when things go right?” Talk about a great topic, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Caroline Miller
I think my favorite book right now is the George Washington biography by Ron Chernow. What an extraordinary leader. I kept hearing people talking about it, I thought, “I’m going to go read that.” I’m just aghast at what an extraordinary human being this man was. We’re so lucky.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I remember listening to 1776, and I was like, “Whoa! That dude, there is some grit, there is some self-sacrifice.” Some impressive components.

Caroline Miller
He was amazing. I had no idea. Wonderful biography.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Caroline Miller
I find that Evernote, Web Clipper in Evernote is the thing I cannot live without. I can’t write a book without it. I will be a subscriber of Evernote for the rest of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Caroline Miller
I get up early and I make a pot of coffee, and I drink it all. And then I go get in the swimming pool. I’m in the swimming pool in my log after that.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate; folks quote it back to you often?

Caroline Miller
“You can’t keep what you don’t give away.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Caroline Miller
To my website, CarolineMiller.com. And, as you know, people often think it’s Caroline. It’s Caroline. Just think Princess Caroline, L-I-N-E. Put CarolineMiller.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Caroline Miller
I really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. Instead of thinking about “How can I succeed?” ask somebody else what their dream is, and then when they accomplish something, make sure you share it with witnesses. I think we need to get away from “How much can we accomplish?” and begin to think of it as kind of a group event because that’s what we’ve gotten away from and we have to get back to that. So, help other people. It will come back and bless you in many other ways.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Caroline, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success with your mastermind groups and research and all your adventures.

Caroline Miller
Thank you so much. Again, I appreciate the audience.

707: Amy Edmondson on How to Build Thriving Teams with Psychological Safety

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Amy Edmondson shares how to boost psychological safety and high performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the average non-toxic organization is still ineffective 
  2. The crucial belief that makes us more courageous
  3. How we unknowingly make and break psychological safety 

About Amy

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the betterment of society. 

Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, receiving the organization’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.  She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning. Her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets. Her most recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth  (Wiley, 2019), offers a practical guide for organizations serious about success in the modern economy and has been translated into 11 languages. Her prior books – Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy (Jossey-Bass, 2012),  Teaming to Innovate  (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and  Extreme Teaming  (Emerald, 2017) – explore teamwork in dynamic organizational environments.

Before her academic career, she was Director of Research at Pecos River Learning Centers, where she worked on transformational change in large companies. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Amy Edmondson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Edmondson
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to be speaking to you. You’ve been on our list for years, and so here we are. And so, I’m excited to dig into all of your wisdom, or as much as we can get, within the time we have available on psychological safety. But, first, I think we need to hear about you and competitive sailing. What’s the story here?

Amy Edmondson
How did that come up? I must’ve answered a question somewhere. Well, I was a competitive sailor as a child, not as much as a child can be, with my great friend Beth Haffner. We’d sail and race all summer and had a wonderful time. Then I sailed and raced in college, and then I took about 35 years off but started up again maybe six years ago. And it’s great fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. So, now I’m curious, when it comes to competing, what is the nature of the event and the competition? And is there a team? What’s your style here?

Amy Edmondson
Yes. So, I compete only in the summer, in a small community in Maine where I’ve gone for many, many years. And I compete in a Sonar with two teammates, and there are only nine boats in the fleet, so that’s the limit to our competition. We race Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons in July and August.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And are things going pretty well, competitively speaking?

Amy Edmondson
Well, as a matter of fact, we just won the season.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-done.

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, thank you. It’s teamwork, it’s all about the teamwork and the psychological safety, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. All right. Well, yes, let’s talk about psychological safety. First of all, well, I guess, whenever I hear your name, I think psychological safety, and vice versa. So, maybe first and foremost, can you give us your official definition? What do we mean when we say psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson
Well, recently, I’ve been thinking the best way to say this is just a sense of permission for candor. And the reason I say permission is that I don’t want to imply that psychological safety means it’s easy to speak up about, potentially, challenging issues, disagreements, or crazy ideas, or questions, or mistakes. But that there’s a belief that it’s feasible, expected, desirable, that people won’t think less well of you for it. So, permission for candor.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s a great distinction because I’ve heard it said elsewhere, a definition of psychological safety is the belief that you are able to say whatever is on your mind without fear of a negative reaction. And I thought, “Hmm, I don’t have that relationship with almost anybody.”

Amy Edmondson
Right. At least without fear of being marginalized or penalized in some way. We all are human and we will have negative reactions to disagreement or certain kinds of bad news. It’s just our emotions will kick in quite quickly. But if we’re thoughtful and we’re a good team and we’re committed to doing the best we can, we will catch ourselves, and say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Just because you just said something unwelcomed doesn’t mean I should shun you or think less well of you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. So, not marginalized, not penalized, not shunned, not thought less well of. But naturally, someone might say something and you think that they are mistaken, and you maybe even feel underappreciated that they would bring up such a thing, but you’re not going to, like, punish them over that even if you have a difficult interaction.

Amy Edmondson
Right. And I think that’s easier to do if you have an honest appreciation of what you’re up against, meaning the nature of the work requires stumbles and falls along the way. If you’re talking about doing something that’s utterly routine and well-understood and well-known, then maybe your expectation should be of only perfect comments and only perfect performance.

But if you’re doing work, like most of us are, where there’s lots of potential for wrong turns and screw ups along the way to greatness, then that’s just part and parcel of what we’re doing here. So, it helps to have a clear-eyed sense of what we’re up against and what we’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then, tell us, that sounds like a pleasant thing, “Oh, yeah, psychological safety, I’d like to have that with my friends, family, colleagues, collaborators,” but more than just a sort of nice to have and pleasant vibe, psychological safety has huge implications for performance. Can you share with us a little bit about that relationship and some of the most compelling bits of data or stories?

Amy Edmondson
Sure. It’s funny because the variable, the measure of psychological safety that I’ve developed 20 years ago, it’s been around in the research literature for a long time, but it’s now been more widely used in company settings and so, in other words, we have more and more data on some of the benefits of psychological safety.

Probably, the most visible, widely read that they’ve done at Google called Project Aristotle, and that was about five years ago. And the study set out, it didn’t set out to study psychological safety, it set out to try to figure out what are the key factors associated with differences in teams at Google, so they studied 180 teams. It turns out they tested about 250 different variables, and psychological safety emerged as the number one predictor of performance in teams, so the number one sort of explainer of variance across teams.

And I think it’s a strong statement to say that surprised them because if you’re looking for something, it’s easier to find it. If you’re not looking for it, it’s almost a more compelling discovery when it pops up as the factor that really helps explain these differences. One of the things I like about that study, too, is that it shows very clearly that there were differences, differences in performance and differences in effectiveness across teams at Google.

So, it helps us see that this is something that varies across teams even in the same corporate culture, and that’s important because we then can be very clear about the fact that psychological safety isn’t just mirroring the culture. It’s climate. It’s interpersonal climate. And even in a very strong or very interesting or healthy corporate culture, you can still have differences in interpersonal climate, differences in just subtle willingness to be candid, to speak up, or to not hold back.

Sometimes I think it’s easier to explain that the absence of psychological safety is basically a preference for, “Oh, I’ll just wait and see. I’ll hold back and maybe things will clarify, and then maybe I’ll speak up.” But that’s an awful lot of cognitive work. So, putting that aside, so the Google study is a good study of the nice relationship between psychological safety and performance, and many others.

One of my favorite studies that I did, which was in a healthcare delivery setting in intensive care unit setting, 23 North American hospitals, 23 intensive care units, we found a statistically, significant relationship between psychological safety and quality improvement. So, the ability over time for teams to improve the quality of care, which was ultimately associated with lower rates of morbidity and mortality, that’s harm and death, so that’s a pretty strong one where life and death are concerned. There are many others though. They’re now really hundreds of studies that have relationships to things like performance, learning behavior, quality improvement, you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a nice overview. Thank you. Could you now perhaps paint a picture of kind of across, I know I’m sure it’ll vary greatly, well, hey, even relationship by relationship, let alone team by team or workplace by workplace. But kind of, roughly speaking, what’s the median average-ish level of psychological safety in workplaces today in the US? And I don’t know if you want to give me a number or paint a picture for kind of like the theme or the vibe.

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, I’ll paint a picture.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s the typical psychological safety story in a workplace these days?

Amy Edmondson
Well, it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to say what’s typical because there’s so much variability. And even during this difficult time of COVID, there’s been extraordinary variability in terms of some places. I think that the rallying together to do what people can to sort of make things work during these difficult times has created the stronger sense of a bond and more psychological safety where people realize, “Yeah, it’s okay for me to say what I’m thinking and to get help when I need help, and that’s acceptable now.”

But in other places, I think where people, especially in workplaces where people are being asked to do things they might not be comfortable doing, one could arguably say that psychological safety has gone down. I strongly believe that, in most organizations, there’s still variance across groups. And this is, in part, because psychological safety is a very local thing that this team might have and that team doesn’t, and that may mean, this is really a middle manager thing, or team leader effect more than, say, a CEO effect, and that’s very much been the case in all of the datasets that I’m aware of.

But, still, I’m dodging your question, saying it depends, there’s lots of variance, some people have it better than others. And, yet, there’s no question in my mind that, nowadays and even before the pandemic, it’s not high enough. So, I think it’s fair to say that very few workplaces have as much psychological safety as would be optimal in terms of helping people do their very best work and helping people team up effectively and solve problems.

Fortunately, the average workplace, I’d say, is not one that’s incredibly toxic or incredibly fearful where there’s a complete focus on self-protection as opposed to on the mission or on what our colleagues need from us and, really, a state of fear. I think that it’s out there, for sure, but it’s not the dominant workplace.

And then I would say there’s few where it’s just extraordinarily high where people are candid and aware of their fallibility but ambitious about what they might do together, and they sort of engage in dissenting views and conflict and problem-solving without fear of reprisal. That’s the other end of the spectrum. In the middle is a whole range of places where, in fact, it’s not toxic, it’s not terrible, but, on average, there’s still too much holding back. People are holding back their ideas, their perspectives, trying to look good in front of their colleagues, their managers, and it limits their ability to contribute.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the “average” or “typical,” which is hard to do, looks like not just straight up abusive hardcore toxicity and fear rampant, but plenty of people holding back in order to look good and concerned about speaking up, and could be harmful or problematic to them. So, I guess I’m curious, if we think about making the leap from kind of “average” or “typical” the suboptimal picture that most of us find ourselves into, versus approaching best in class, well, maybe could you give us a cool case study of do we have a transformation there in terms of what was it like before and what was the vibe like after? And then how did that translate into some results?

Amy Edmondson
So, one of the great turnaround stories, and I do write about this in some detail in The Fearless Organization is Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo-American, which is a mining company in South Africa. And when she became CEO, which is already a stunning thing because the first woman CEO and so forth, she was appalled to discover the degree of worker accidents and even deaths.

And so, she decided to make that her mission to profoundly transform the performance on this crucial dimension of workplace safety. And to do this, she realized pretty quickly that she needed people to be speaking up, speaking up about unsafe conditions, speaking up when they’re being asked to do something that’s unsafe, or when they’re sort of aware of a hazard.

Not easy to do because it’s been decades, even generations, of not being heard and not being listened to and feeling that you just go in there, you do your job, and that’s that. It was a pretty stunning kind of intervention, got everybody in the stadium and got them talking in a new way, and was able to kind of apply that into the workforce and turn this around and make a dramatic difference.

Here’s a very different context. SED, one of the largest Nordic banks, did a sort of, I wouldn’t call it as a dramatic turnaround because I don’t think they weren’t in real trouble, but senior leaders were aware that the financial services industry was changing, more fintech players, more innovative. And the executive who ran the risk group decided, that psychological safety for speaking up about potential risks.

Because when people just feel like, “Ooh, maybe I’m wrong,” and they hold back and they’re not confident enough that their superiors want to listen to them, the bank is more vulnerable to risks. And so, that was a very thoughtful turnaround of that unit, and then it started to spread to other business units in the bank as well. So, that was a fun one to write about.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. All right. So, that’s sort of the picture there. And I’d love it, in terms of sort of the practical how-to, if folks are in organizations and they want to improve the psychological safety for themselves and others in their teams, what are some great starting points or key practices that make all the differences?

Amy Edmondson
A way to answer that question, in terms of both as a starting point and a practice that makes a difference, is start with the work, start with how the performance goals that you share, what they look like and what they require so that we’re not doing this just for the sake of doing it, or because we’re interested in culture change per se, but we articulate sort of why the work we do needs us to behave and show up in a different way.

So, articulating goals that matter, that are motivating, that are energizing, and then kind of having some discussion about why achieving those goals requires people to voice their ideas, to challenge each other, to be open about failures, is sort of the next logical step. And then I think it’s really important not to dictate how we’re doing to do this but to invite people to sort of suggest some things that they think might work, that might help them have an easier time offering their ideas or asking questions. And then start testing some of those suggestions, and just keeping it in the context.

I’m advocating not for, “Let’s go offline and learn some things,” but, “Let’s practice some new ways of talking and being while doing our work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That sounds good. So, that’s a nice thing to kick it off and kind of get folks engaged, rallied around that goal, and it makes sense. It’s not some extra thing, but it really has impact on what we’re trying to do here. That’s cool. And then I’m curious about just sort of like the basic ways in which we talk to and interact with each other. Like, what are some dos and don’ts in terms of kind of offering feedback, asking for input, responding to failure? I think some of us might need a pretty dramatic re-programming of just the way we talk to people.

Amy Edmondson
That’s a great way to put it and it’s hard. I struggle with this question. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about it. But I struggle because there’s no easy answer. It’s, “How do you do re-programming?” And I talk a lot, I think a lot about framing and I talk about reframing. So, framing is something we do all the time as human beings. We think we’re sort of under the illusion that we’re seeing reality. We’re not. We’re seeing reality filtered through our own beliefs and all the rest.

And sometimes our frames are really obsolete. There are frames that we inherited from an earlier era, an era when the relationship between kind of effort and results was more straightforward. You tried really hard; you’d get the results because the formula was pretty clear. Follow the recipe, you get the results.

And as an increasing portion of the work doesn’t really conform to that simple frame, we have to explicitly and deliberately reframe which is another way of saying re-reprogram to help ourselves really appreciate that we’re fallible human beings in a complex uncertain interconnected world. Those are conditions that will necessarily give rise to the unexpected and the undesired and, also, some, now and then, happier surprises.

So, that re-programming, in a way, it helps us get over ourselves. We’ve got to shed the idea that we need to be perfect. We’ve got to shed the idea that we need to look good all the time. And I know, I suspect most listeners don’t think, when they say, well, I’m not telling I need to be perfect or I need to look good all the time, but, in subtle ways, we’re acting as if that’s the case. We’re holding back too often. We’re putting the threshold for when we should speak up higher than it needs to be.

And so, to do this re-programming, I think it’s a lot of having a kind of cheerful recognition that you’re a fallible human being in a fast-paced uncertain ambiguous world, and then, “Ooh, if I really appreciated that that was the case, how would I show up? Well, I’d ask a lot more questions. I’d be a lot more curious.”

So, the re-programming starts with that kind of clear-eyed acceptance of reality and realizing that might be different than how we kind of tacitly think about reality. And then forcing ourselves to be curious, which then allows us to do what I think is the most important thing of all, which is to ask more questions, genuine questions, like you’re doing. You’re asking me questions, and then you are quietly listening to the answers. If only real life were like this, not just podcast life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, that would be nice. And so then, that’s a great frame for starters in terms of, well, boy, say it again. I’m a fallible human in a changing…that’s so good. Let’s hear it again.

Amy Edmondson
Okay. And I might not say it the same way twice, but I’m a fallible human being living in a fast-changing uncertain interdependent world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, tell you what, just sitting with that, for me, in this moment, is just bringing a sigh of relief, you know, in terms of like I can let go of a lot of pressure, stress, expectation that need not be there.

Amy Edmondson
Right. I’m the same way. I talk about this, but do I practice it consistently? No. In fact, I have this to-do list that I started with this morning. It’s utterly unrealistic. There’s no way I can, you know, get, “Oh, I’ll finish a chapter, I’ll have this wonderful time with you.” It’s crazy. But I do it every day as if. And then I feel bad about not getting through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And then if you really do internalize that conviction, it’s like if someone…even though someone does kind of disrespect you with regard to, it’s like, “Really, Pete, that’s on page four of the briefing document. Like, that was a really stupid question and I’m appalled that you asked,” in that tone of voice, face, which is where I think about this, the violations of psychological safety left and right.

You can feel better about that, it’s like, “Okay, yeah. Well, yeah, fair enough. I should’ve read the briefing document before making…that’s true. Easy mistake I made,” but that doesn’t mean I’m bad or a loser or worthless, a team member who doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t mean any of those things. It’s just like, “Yeah, I made a mistake. We all do it. Yeah, moving on.”

Amy Edmondson
Right. And I’m not a fan of making the same silly mistake multiple times in a row. We do have to learn from and keep striving to do better, but I imagine most people feel that way as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I would love it if there are any particular words or phrases that you see and love in psychologically safe organizations versus see and really irk you in not so psychologically safe organizations because I think there’s just a lot of little subtle ways that psychological safety is built and destroyed. Just for example, one of mine is when someone says “Obviously,” I really don’t like that because it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that I must be an idiot.” That’s one of my pet peeves.

Amy Edmondson
That’s a beautiful example.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think most people need not say the word obviously in most of their business communications, but that’s just sort of my hobby horse.

Amy Edmondson
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
You tell me, Amy. What are some of yours?

Amy Edmondson
No, that’s a really good one. And, because with compassion, it can be a habit. So, it’s a very counterproductive word to use in interpersonal communication for the reasons you just articulated. And I’m aware that I accidentally do use it sometimes because my brain speaks that way to me, and then I use it. So, that’s okay as long as we can sort of catch and correct and occasionally laugh at ourselves for doing that. And I sometimes will, I’ll use the word, like obviously, and then I’ll stop and say, “Oh, no. So, if it were obvious, I wouldn’t say it,” or it wouldn’t be a nice way to say it anyway.

Another one is “To be honest.” I mean, crazy to say that because it basically invalidates so much of the prior conversation we might have. So, if I say “To be honest,” it’s like, “Wait a minute. Was everything up until now not really honest?” And so, these kinds of things can be well-meaning but problematic. It’s such a good question that you just asked that I’m going to now commit to creating a list.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please let us know and we’ll link it in the show notes and share it if we can when the time comes.

Amy Edmondson
Perfect. That’s a good idea. That’s a good idea because I do love studying conversations, studying the actual exchange of words, and noting those problematic triggers that sort of indicate, any word that indicate, “Oh, you’re supposed to have known that already,” or, “Your question isn’t really welcome,” you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Yeah, those are good categories right there, like, “Your question isn’t really welcome.” We think that, “You’re dumb. I think you’re dumb because you said that.” I remember once, I was working on a project in retail, and, again, it’s these little things. And so, it was a major department store, this was a consulting project, it was a major department store, and we were learning about size packs, which was a new concept to me in terms of, like, if you buy it from a clothing designer, I don’t even know if this still works this way, but you can choose from size packs.

So, a size pack might have four extra larges, ten larges, three mediums. And that was really surprising to me, and I was like, “Wait a minute. So, we’re a huge department store client, right? And we got these clothing suppliers…?”

Amy Edmondson
Pretty limited, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“We can just tell them, no, I want exactly these many smalls, mediums, and larges. Like, really, size packs? Like, why do we do that?” And I remember the partner on the case looked at me, and he said, “Are you serious?” Like, he genuinely didn’t know if I was trying to make a joke, but I really wasn’t. But when he said that, I was like, “Oh, apparently, that was a phenomenally stupid thing to say.” And I still don’t know why to this day, I’m like, “If you’ve got the market power, shouldn’t your suppliers give you what you want?” I don’t know, but maybe there’s a logistical supplier reason and trucks or packaging or something less known.

Amy Edmondson
Well, it’s easier for them, clearly. But, “Are you serious? Because, as you said, “Are you serious?” as a sarcastic statement, which it may have been, is problematic. But if it were genuine, I’m in favor, “I just need to check, I’m not sure. Are you serious or are you…?” so, anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you, yeah.

Amy Edmondson
The genuineness really matters.

Pete Mockaitis
It was genuine. And then I think that’s another layer to this psychological safety stuff. It’s like you could be speaking perfectly safely, and someone could still receive it negatively.
So, for example, that partner said, “Are you serious?” and even if it was genuine, he was like, “Are you serious?” And I really was, but the fact that he sounded serious made me think, “Oh, apparently, this is so obvious I’m a moron.”

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, right, that’s true. That’s true. And then you backed down.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the conclusion I leapt to but that’s on me. He didn’t demean me or he wasn’t rude to me.

Amy Edmondson
Yes, that’s great. That’s on you. That’s you withdrawing and feeling, “Oops, just slightly less safe,” expressing your thoughts about this work-related matter, even though technically it wasn’t his fault because you put sort of that embarrassment on yourself, you said, “Oh, I guess this is something I’m supposed to know. And maybe I stepped out, I tiptoed out, and it didn’t work out well, so now I’m going back into my shelf.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that happened. And I guess I’m curious, given that human beings with our varied triggers and hot buttons and sensitivities, that can happen, any pro tips for dealing with that and trying to continue building psychological safety given that reality?

Amy Edmondson
Yes. Interpersonal skills are skills that we can continue to develop our whole lives. I don’t think anyone ever perfects them. And the interpersonal skill that I’m deeply interested in, because of its relationship to mutual learning, is that ability to kind of have an honest conversation, especially about a misunderstanding, like in that moment. Now, don’t think you want to do a deep dive in every crosswire that might happen throughout the workday, but, occasionally, that one really stuck with you, that really struck you.

Pete Mockaitis
This was a decade ago, yeah.

Amy Edmondson
You were puzzled by it. It stuck with you. And so, occasionally, really, it’s worth saying, “Hold on, could we do a quick timeout here?” or maybe if we’re too busy now, “I’d love to talk about this later. I need to understand better. Here’s how I was seeing it. Am I really missing a sort of area of expertise in this industry that I need to develop? Or, might this possibly be an area of innovation that we could work on together?” And so, that’s the substance.

And then the interpersonal substance is, “I felt bad and maybe even assumed that my ignorance was glaring in that moment when you said that, but I understand why you said it.” So, that we can sort of start to develop working relationships with people where we understand each other’s needs better, and then we’re better able to learn together.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good. And, as I imagine, I’m sure there’s all kinds of potential sensible explanations under the surface, like, “Oh, I’ve been working in this industry for 20 years, so size packs are just like second nature to me.” But, yeah, yet you might think that…whatever. So, I could see how that unfolds. And then, over time, certainly, that feels great in terms of relationships being strengthened by engaging in these exchanges. All right. Well, then could you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Edmondson
“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work,” and that’s, of course, Thomas Edison. And it’s this notion that in new territory, which all of us are in, more and more frequently nowadays, we reframe. We have to reframe how we’re thinking about the things that go wrong so that we actually understand them as progress toward the things that are going to go right. So, that’s one in terms of the substance and just sort of feeling better about ourselves when things don’t go the way we had hoped.

The other one is a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I adore because it speaks to this interpersonal realm. And he said, “I don’t like that man very much. I must get to know him better.” To me, that’s a very profound statement. Most of us, “I decide I don’t like someone. I’m going to, okay, I don’t like him. I’m going to go spend time with other people.” It doesn’t occur to me, instantaneously, to think, “I don’t like him. I guess I don’t understand him well yet. If I understood where he’s coming from and what he cares about and his hopes and dreams, I’d like him.”

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amy Edmondson
I’ll have to say that a favorite study was the study that didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, was the first real project I did as a graduate student, as a PhD student, where I was trying to show the better teams in a healthcare delivery setting had fewer errors, and the data, once I had it and analyzed it, seem to suggest the opposite. In other words, the better teams, according to the team survey instrument, had higher not lower error rates, like, “What? What’s going on?”

Well, that was the surprise, undesired result that led, ultimately, to you and I having this conversation today because I was able to figure out that, right away, with a lot of extra work, that the reason for this result was that the better teams were more open, more honest, more willing to report error, and so it looked like they had the worst error rates. But, in fact, we don’t know the denominator, we don’t know what the real error rate was for any of those teams, but we did find out, ultimately, they had very different interpersonal climates, which I would then call psychological safety.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote back to you often?

Amy Edmondson
Leader is a position, leadership is an activity. Anyone can exercise leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Amy Edmondson
AmyCEdmondson.com or Harvard Business School Faculty page, HBS.edu. Go to Amy Edmondson there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Amy Edmondson
Ask more questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you many fun adventures in sailing and more.

Amy Edmondson
Thank you. It’s been a treat talking with you.

702: Building the Courage to Speak Up and Stand Out at Work with Jim Detert

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Jim Detert says: "Advocacy isn't just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It's helping people see why I came to that conclusion."

Jim Detert discusses how to build your courage to stand out and influence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why acting courageously is easier than you think
  2. The four fears that keep us from acting courageously
  3. The most effective way to get others to listen to you

About Jim

Jim Detert (PhD, Harvard) is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Detert’s research focuses on employee voice and other forms of workplace courage, experiential leadership development, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research has won several academic best-paper awards, and his teaching and curriculum development have also won multiple awards at UVA and Cornell.

Resources Mentioned

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Jim Detert Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jim, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jim Detert
It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting about courage at work. And I’d love to hear from you upfront, what was a time you really had to muster up some courage at work?

Jim Detert
Well, as a tenured professor, it’s actually kind of laughable perhaps to talk about courage at work. I have a real privilege of a type of job security most people don’t have. So, I would say, most of the times I’ve had to muster up courage at work in the spirit of challenging long-standing tradition. We’re pretty slow to change.

And so, when I was dean, for example, of our executive MBA program, I found myself repeatedly responding to statements that we can’t do something, with statements of, “By ‘I can’t do something’ do you mean it’s illegal or immoral, or simply that we haven’t done it in the past and prefer not to?” Those, frankly, are so numerous that I won’t bore listeners with all the specific examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is a nice helpful distinction to put front and center there. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s your personal experience. And how about your research, any particularly counterintuitive or surprising discoveries you’ve made about courage at work over your research career?

Jim Detert
Well, I think a few insights that have emerged that might seem counterintuitive, or at least they’re counter to the narrative. So, for example, I think we have a myth, in fact, I know we have a myth that courage is some kind of in-born trait or capacity that a few possess but most don’t. And having studied, literally, thousands of individual actors and acts of courage, I can tell you that there is no magic gene, there is no magic personality trait, background experience. People who step up and do the right thing at work, when they could and should, very tremendously in every dimension you and I can name. So, one sort of insight or sort of myth-busting for me has been it is not about a personal type. It is about a personal choice.

I think related to that is that people talk about courageous action as if these folks were sort of born ready or it was easy but, in fact, when you study folks, when they’re talking about John Lewis, for example, in the political realm or so many people I’ve studied in more regular kinds of workplaces, what you realize is that actually what looks like this natural confidence comes from hard work, years of practice, years of trying things, learning how to be more effective. So, that’s a second takeaway, is that this is like any skill. It’s developed through practice and commitment.

Maybe one insight or aha about the process itself is we think a lot about the moment when somebody speaks up or steps up. That’s the thing we remember and tend to pass on through narrative. But it turns out that what seems to make a difference in many cases for how those moments go is the preparation work and the things people do before those acts, and then, maybe most surprisingly, what they do after. So, skillful actors don’t just manage the moment well. They’re really good about after the fact, following up when things seem to have gone well, getting commitments, securing resources.

And when things didn’t go so well, they’re courageous enough to go have yet another difficult conversation, and say, “Hey, you look upset or angry or your body language suggests that you weren’t onboard. Can we talk about that?” And I think that follow-up is something we don’t think much at all about because we’re so focused on that big-bang moment itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing, yes. So, you’re right, in terms of as we just think about being courageous, like what comes to mind is exactly that, those moments of stepping up, saying something unpopular, or challenging the status quo in some way. And so, that’s a good thought in terms of there really is some private work going on either internally in their own brains or sort of afterwards one-on-one in the mix. Well, thanks for those. And maybe zooming out a bit, so your book Choosing Courage, what’s the central thesis here?

Jim Detert
The central thesis, I guess, going back to where we started, is really that courage is a personal choice and it’s a responsibility, and it helps to think not about courage as if it’s some sort of property. I often say, if you do an autopsy of somebody, you won’t find some stock of courage somewhere in the body. There is no such thing. So, it helps to think about courageous action.

And once you say it’s about whether you do something in those critical moments, you then can assume personal responsibility. And, in a sense, the thesis is that we don’t allow ourselves to say that any other virtue is just a responsibility of some, or that we should do some of the time. If you think about fairness or moderation or kindness, so many other principal or cardinal virtues, those aren’t just the responsibility of one of my ten coworkers, or myself, one of ten opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m not really an honest person, Jim. You know that. I leave that to the other guys. They’re often honest. That’s good enough for me.”

Jim Detert
The question, right, is, “Why have we allowed that?” We wouldn’t say that about any of these other traits, these virtues, so why do we allow that in the realm of courage? Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook too frequently. And part of it is because we’re afraid, and so the book talks a lot about how to address fears, and part of it is because we’re not very skilled, and so we see so many screw ups in ourself and others when people do try to behave courageously, that we conclude, “It’s just too dangerous.”

And so, the book is fundamentally about saying, “Hey, you got to choose your moments, but then you have to be willing to take on some risks and you have to be willing to do the work to increase your competency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, it’s interesting, we’re talking about virtue, and I’m thinking about Aristotle and how the pursuit of the good life is good in and of itself, and brings about happiness and such. But just to get mercenary for a second, is it in professionals’ best interest to choose courage? Will that help them be more awesome and advance their jobs? Or is it better to play it safe? How do you think about that?

Jim Detert
So, I think there’s basically two answers to that question. First of all, it depends on your goals. If your goals are basically to just get ahead, potentially as quickly as possible, then, frankly, you and I know there are lots of organizations where the definition of being awesome at your job is keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and just delivering. And in that regard, you could say choosing courage in the short run, not a great idea.

On the other hand, if you say, “I want to live of life where I felt I had agency, where I was authentic, I was true to myself, l lived my values,” then, hell, yeah, it’s the right choice to make. Another way to think about it is, “Over what time horizon?” So, if you’re talking about whether, “Choosing courage will necessarily put me in line first for the next promotion,” well, maybe, maybe not. But when you start to look at a longer-time horizon, like, “Will I be proud of the legacy I’m creating? Will others really remember me and want to stand with me? Will I have long-term regrets or not?” that’s when this choice is so critical.

If you look at the regret literature, for example, it’s pretty well-established that people, by a large margin, tend to regret inactions, things they think they should’ve done and didn’t than actions they took that didn’t go well. This is true even in people who suffer pretty big consequences – whistleblowers, for example. Almost none of them say they regret doing it.

So, what I would say to listeners is it depends. If you’re talking about how to be most popular or get ahead tomorrow, well, sticking your neck out is not always the best approach. If you’re talking about living what you or I or Aristotle or anybody else would call the good life, then I’d say, yeah, you got to choose courage sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d imagine, with sort of any measure of prudent risk-taking and say, “I’m going to take on this big project or responsibility or duty or opportunity where the outcome is uncertain,” I think that a level of that is essential for a career to advance, otherwise you don’t seem that special, it’s like, “Okay, you did your job within the realm of ordinary responsibilities. You didn’t deliver near really cool sort of noteworthy improvements, so.”

Jim Detert
Yeah. Okay, I would say if we’re really honest there, a few paths probably to eventually standing up. One, of course, is to be the absolutely best political player. Attach yourself to the most important people and play their game and you’ll get ahead to some degree. Now, for those of us who find that approach distasteful in a variety of ways, I think you’re right, you have to stand out eventually and with some consistency in other ways. And that’s where there’s such a difference between just being courageous and being competently courageous.

My book is titled Choosing Courage. It many respects, it should’ve been titled Choosing Competent Courage because, indeed, the route to success is not just speaking up or speaking out, pushing back against every possible thing you could in offensive language or with terrible emotional valence. It’s about doing those things in ways, to your point, to help you stand out positively. Because not just did you point out a problem, a path forward, a way to expand a market, a creative idea, but you did it in a way that those above you could hear, that they weren’t offended by. Because, at the end of the day, you can stand out in positive or negative ways. And what you’re referring to is how to stand out in positive ways, and that’s about skills when you behave courageously.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we’re talking a lot about courage and standing up, standing out, taking risks, speaking up. Could you make it all the more real for us in terms of some examples of common places where courageous acts make all the difference at work, or where people often shy away? Kind of what specific kinds of moments are we talking about here?

Jim Detert
So, there are a few sorts of prototypical types of acts that if you sample thousands of people, as I have, say, 75% or more will say, “Yeah, unfortunately, these behaviors are moderately courageous or more.” The most obvious type of behavior, set of behaviors, are what I call truth to power behaviors. So, these are challenging your boss, or skip-level bosses. It could be about policies or practices. It could be about interpersonal behaviors that are offensive or hurtful. It could be about actually illegal or unethical things. It can be about going to bat for your own subordinates to people above you. So, lots of truth to power behaviors.

Somewhat surprising, going back to that conversation, I was surprised to the degree to which when I just asked people, “Tell me about a behavior at work that would be courageous,” I expected that everybody would say truth to power type behaviors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frequency of people talking about how hard it was to have honest conversations with peers or even have honest conversations or give difficult feedback to subordinates. And the reason I think that was originally surprising to me is I was thinking primarily of risks in terms of economic or career consequences, “If it doesn’t go well, my promotion, my pay, my future here is at stake.”

It turns out, people have a few fundamental fears, and that’s only one of them. People are also highly afraid of social consequences. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve evolved in small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily tasks was survival. And if you got ostracized from your group, you were going to die, and you were going to die in short order. And so, it’s not illogical that even though that’s not our environment today, evolutionarily, we’re still programmed to be hugely afraid of being ostracized, to have social consequences.

We also hate psychological risks. We say, “Why don’t people step up and try a new task or take a new job or be more innovative?” The answer there is often they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to see self-doubt creep in. And so, there’s actually this huge range of behaviors that’s not just about challenging power. It’s about difficult interpersonal situations with peers, subordinates, external partners. It’s about being innovative.

I developed an index of the most common behaviors I heard about from thousands of people, and there’s 35 different behaviors. And many of them, you would probably say, “Gosh, for a professional or a manager, isn’t that just doing your job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it is, but these things have been surprisingly infrequently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love this. So, categories of fears: economic risk, “Might lose my job or money or promotion”; social risk, “Folks will not like me, shun me, ostracize me”; psychological risk, “I might feel stupid or embarrassed if I screw this up and look real dumb.” Are those kinds of the three categories or are there some more there?

Jim Detert
Well, the fourth one, which is real in many contexts I didn’t mention, is physical. If you go back 2,000 years of courage-writing, the vast history of courage-writing was about military contexts. And sure enough, there are still, in military, firefighting, police work, plenty of other settings that come to mind, they’re so physical risks. And even, frankly, I was surprised the degree to which folks who work in any sort of service occupation – bartenders, waiters, customer service – actually report cases of being physically assaulted, accosted, threatened with a weapon, so there’s physical risks also that some people face.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And these 35 behaviors, can you tell us what sort of tops the list in terms of like one, two, three?

Jim Detert
So, in terms of level of courageousness, not surprisingly, those physical risks. So, jumping into the middle of imminent physical risks or harm is number one. What’s surprising, though, is that there are several other behaviors that are statistically no different in terms of how courageous they’re seen as being. These are things like being willing to challenge bosses or skip-level bosses about unethical or illegal behaviors, quitting a job on principle. There are actually several, more available to all of us, kinds of jobs that are actually seen as just as courageous as these physical risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. So, that’s the lay of the land. Now, Jim, tell us, if we think we want or need or should do something, and we feel scared about doing it, walk us through it, how do we go about choosing competent courage?

Jim Detert
So, let’s talk just briefly about what you would do before you would take that specific action, then sort of the moment itself, and then what you would do after. So, before. Some people say, “Hey, I’m not ready to take this specific act,” and I say, “That’s fine but you can still work on it every day.” And they say, “What does that mean?”

Well, what it means is the reception you’re going to get to that challenge you issue is, in part, based on the content of the issue. Is that a highly sensitive threatening issue to the boss? But it’s also going to depend on the impression that boss has already formed of you. Does that boss think you’re benevolent? In other words, is the reason you’re speaking up because you actually care about him and others in the organization, or is it because you’re self-interested and just trying to get ahead?

And the boss is also going to ask himself or herself, implicitly, “Hey, if I listen to Jim or Pete, and give them resources or take action they’re suggesting, are they competent, can they do it? Can they make good use of these resources?” And so, every day, we are creating in others, perceptions of whether we’re warm and competent, and that’s really sort of setting the stage, showing people we are fair, we’re emotionally intelligent, on a regular basis sets the stage. So, those things you can be doing every day.

Another thing is the question of, “Is this really the right issue? And is it really the right battle and the right time?” So, if you work in an organization, any organization I’ve ever studied, you could pick something to speak up about every single day but most of them are not truly important to you and don’t make a huge difference. And so, having the skill to sort of suss out what are critical to your core values and to your objectives, and which are sort of tertiary issues, that’s really important.

A woman I work with, Tawana Burnett at Facebook, African-American female leader, really a spectacular leader, and she’s one of the first 20 black females at Facebook, and she said, “Look, if I was going to speak up every single time somebody said something that was inappropriate or insensitive based on race or gender, I’d be doing it every day, but I also would quickly become ineffective because people would stop listening to me.”

And so, she said, “Look, my core value, my core objective is that we have to get more black females into leadership roles, senior leadership roles, because only then will things really change.” So, her rule is, “When things offend me, I ask myself, ‘Is this about the hiring, evaluation, or promotion of black females?’ And if it is, I speak up because we’re not going to get where we need to go if I don’t. If it’s about other things, I may choose to let it go.” So, it’s really about sort of choosing wisely.

Then there’s the moment itself. That’s about what you say, where you say it, how you say it, with what emotional tone, and I’ll give just one specific sort of general piece of advice here. All of us, when asked or when thinking about, like, “I’m going to go for it on this issue,” our first instinct is going to be to say the matter, present the issue, try to give the persuasive remarks from the perspective that’s compelling to us. After all, it’s our brain in which we’re concocting the story, the argument, the pitch, and so our tendency is going to be to frame it in a way that works for us. Often, that’s exactly wrong because if you already control the behavior of the other person or the resources the other person controls, you don’t need to do this anyway.

And so, imagine, for example, that I work for you or with you, and you are really compelled by things that affect us economically, that hit the bottom line, and you really are sensitive to threats or risks to our wellbeing or performance. So, you care about the money and you care about threats. But I come in pitching this great new idea to you, and I’m talking about how it fits with our values and it’s so culturally aligned with who we are, and how it’s such an opportunity, and that opportunity framing and cultural framing doesn’t resonate for you at all because I failed to mention the economic reality or the potential threats if we don’t do this.

And so, people have to remember that it’s the target’s ability to hear and respond well to what you’re saying that makes all the difference. And my book talks about lots and lots of specific strategies for achieving that, but the high-level concept is you got to speak to the target. And then as we started with, I mentioned the importance of following up, whether things have gone well and you’re securing additional resources or timelines, or whether they haven’t gone so well and you’re trying to mend fences, that’s really important, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to the framing, I would like to hear some of the specific tidbits there. So, do you have some archetypes or categories of frames, so values, economic? Those sounded nice in terms of, yeah, those have very different flavors to them. Any others that come to mind?

Jim Detert
So, there are some other sort of broader frames. For example, I versus we, or sort of win-win versus win-loss. I think what we often fail to remember, we know this but we fail to remember it in the moment, is that when you’re telling somebody why they should do something differently, or you’re pitching your idea, part of what they’re hearing is, as the recipient is, “Oh, you’re saying I’m bad, or my idea or current practice is inferior,” or, “Oh, you want to do this,” or, “You look good and I look like a fool.” And so, framing that helps people understand, “I don’t want to replace or win at your expense. I want to take what you’ve done to the next level. I want to be the scout out front who then brings us all along together. I want to expand the pie for everyone.”

So, helping people be able to hear what you’re saying because they really think you’re on their side, and that you’re advancing excellence rather than beating something down in a win-loss, that’s a huge element of positive framing. And then, frankly, there are lots of just small things we inadvertently say. We can have sort of a beautiful set of data compiled and we can present evidence and solutions, and in just a couple small words, we can screw things up.

We often follow, for example, into the trap of naïve realism, which is simply this idea that there’s just one reality out there, and it just happens to be, “The one that I see. So, if you don’t see it my way, you’re dumb.” And when we unconsciously operate that way, we’ll say things like, “Well, since it’s so obvious that this is the case,” or, “Since this is so unambiguous,” “Since it’s so clear to everybody,” “Since it’s unquestionably the case.” Well, the effect of words like unambiguous, or so clear, or unquestionably, is essentially to say, “If you have any questions or doubts or see it any differently, you’re a dummy or you’re self-interested.”

So, learning to speak with less certainty, learning to avoid other certain phrases, I call them frequency words. My wife and I still joke, 25 years in, how often we would get distracted from the actual content of what one or the other of us were saying because the person who pointed something out would use the word never or always.

So, for example, if my wife wanted me to actually help with the dishes, she was actually quite correct if she would say, “You don’t help clean up as often as you could or should.” That was a correct statement. But if she would say to me, “You never help with the dishes,” the never would trigger me and I would get into a frequency argument with her, and say, “That’s not true,” and I would pull out my little notepad and say, “On Tuesday, July 30th, I actually put the pizza dishes in the…” And so, we would get derailed into an argument about never or always and away from the underlying issue itself around which she or I would be right.

Also, saying things, for example, like, “Don’t take it personal.” I would submit to listeners that we actually never use that phrase except in situations when we know at some level it’s personal. There’s no reason you would say that if that wasn’t the case. There’s the classic scene from You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks has got the big Fox Books store and he’s putting Meg Ryan’s little family independent bookstore out of business, and he says to her, “Why are you so mad at me? It’s not personal. It’s just business.” And, of course, she rightfully says, “What are you talking about? ‘It’s not personal?’ This is my family’s bookstore. This is nothing but personal.”

And so, I think avoiding phrases like, “It’s not personal.” And, listeners, if they want, can easily find a short piece on HBR.org that I wrote just a month or so ago on trap phrases and words to avoid in a conversation that speak to all of these kinds of examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it when we get specific about precise words to avoid. Any words that you love, key things that find their way into a lot of great communications?

Jim Detert
So, if you go back to the great sort of master Chris Argyris, he talked about the idea of cognitive ladders of inference and advocacy and inquiry. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard of this, the basic idea was that most of the time we communicate at what Chris called the top of the ladder, our conclusion. I say, “Hey, Pete, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow.” That’s a conclusion. And Pete says, “That’s crazy. We should stick with what we got.” That’s a conclusion.

What we fail to do is get below those cognitive ladders of inference, that is what’s going on in our head. So, if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow,” what I have done actually is I’m drawing on some data, like, “Hey, here’s data on what our competitors are doing. Here’s data internally on how our sales have decreased recently,” or, “Hey, here are some data on us losing some top talent because they’re bored.” And from that, I might reason, “We need to do something new and we need to do it in a way that catches the market’s attention, and, therefore, I reached that conclusion I said to you.”

And, similarly, you’re saying, “Hey, we should stick with it the way it is.” The thing is that you’re looking at other data. You may be looking and saying, “Nobody above me has said we have a problem yet. Most of the industry is still doing what we’re doing.” You might therefore reason, “I think things are fine. Jim is just antsy. They’re ballistic with what we’ve got.”

And so, the specific tool here is advocacy and inquiry. And advocacy isn’t just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It’s helping people see why I came to that conclusion. So, phrases like, “Can I share my data with you?” or, “Can I help you see my reasoning?” things that reveal your ladder, language that reveals your ladder. And then the most powerful thing are inquiry phrases, saying, “Hey, Pete, I heard you say that you think we should stay. Can you help me understand why? Can you help me see where you’re coming from? Can you share your reasoning with me?”

Skillful inquiry is perhaps the single best way to sort of build communication bridges I know and have ever read about. And all you got to do, we’re talking about the world of work, but all I got to do is look around the world we’re living in, the divisiveness politically, etc., and you realize we are all constantly screaming at each other from the top of our ladders, and we’re not good at all of helping people see where we’re coming from, or taking perspective by asking people where they’re coming from.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s so good. That’s good. And speaking of emotions, what are your top tips on managing the emotions, like, either you’re super scared or you’re super angry when you are prepping to speak up, choose courage?

Jim Detert
Yeah, so fear and anger, we sort of all intuitively know, they have the opposite action propensities. So, fear will tend to make you sort of flee or freeze. Fear is an avoidance emotion, whereas, anger is an approach emotion. Anger makes you want to go toward the source. So, the advice has to be quite different. With fear, you have to do things, frankly, often ahead of time. Over longer periods of time, it can be about being in good physical shape, it can be about mindfulness, yoga, anything that sort of helps you sort of change your sort of base physiological response.

People with high fear often find they have to also take specific steps like scripting out in advance things they’re going to say. They may have to practice more and have people sort of shoot back at them so they can practice sort of staying in the moment and not fleeing. Most people don’t physically run out of a room but you’ll see them just shut down and cave. And so, they have to really practice camping down the fear.

Anger, on the other hand, is, in some respects, useful because if you get angry enough about something, you’re actually likely to bring it up and say or do something about it. The problem with anger is you’re likely to be quite unskillful – offensive, for example. And here I’ll tell a story about myself. Most people, I think, in fact, almost everybody who knows me would say, “Jim has no problem choosing courage but at times Jim has had a problem with displaying competent courage.” And in most instances, that would be because I let anger at injustices or problems or whatever get in the way.

And so, part of dealing with anger is what you do in the moment. It turns out these old adages like, “Count to ten,” or, “Take three deep breaths,” these are actually quite useful because what they actually are doing is trying to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. It’s often a very useful tactic to try to teach yourself, to train yourself, to accept in emergencies not speak in that moment but schedule a follow-up, allow the moment to pass and then schedule after you’ve sort of gotten your emotions back together.

And then, frankly, part of it is knowing who you are and using strategies, sometimes even technologies to be your friend. So, in my case, this was a number of years ago, having made the classic mistake of firing off some emails when I was upset. I’d learned that you can actually set the Outlook timer to basically hold all emails you’ve sent in the outbox for any designated number of minutes or hours. And so, for quite some time, I set my Outlook outgoing mail to hold for 60 minutes because I knew that if I basically didn’t send emails for an hour, there was a very high likelihood I would calm down and revisit that email and have a chance to save it before I couldn’t.

So, learning strategies for both, lessening your anger, and then sort of navigating around it are really important.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jim, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Jim Detert
I think, again, the thing to really know is that if you accept the premise that we’ve talked about here today, which is that this is a choice everybody has to make and it’s about skills, then the really important thing to do is to set specific goals. And I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is the reason I think people often don’t engage in courage at work is they think of the very scariest thing that comes to mind first, and then they, rightfully so, conclude one of two things, “I’m not going to do that because it’s too difficult and it’ll go terribly,” or they’ll say, “I tried it, and because it was so incredibly difficult and I wasn’t ready, I totally screwed it up. And that only confirmed for me how stupid choosing courage is.”

I think this is akin to the idea that you decide, you’re not a runner but you decide you’re going to run a 10K. Well, the dumbest thing to do would be to go out and try to run 10K the first day. You’d be so sore with so many injuries, you’d probably never jog again. So, what I encourage people to do is build a personal courage ladder. Yeah, you can put that scariest thing on the top rung but put some sort of moderately difficult things in the middle rungs, and put some things that you’re a little afraid of but you could imagine doing on the lowest rungs, and then choose those to start with.

Because, as with any skill, the way you actually build competence over time is you start small, and you have a little success, and you feel better about yourself, it increases your motivation. So, what we haven’t really, I think, talked about enough is the importance of starting small. That’s how all skills are developed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I love the quote of George Bernard Shaw. He says, “Reasonable people adapt to the world around themselves. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to themselves, and that’s why all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I think we give so much advice about sort of fitting in, getting along, and sometimes we forget that, actually, the great change agents, the people who we most admire were okay pushing boundaries and being a little bit unreasonable.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jim Detert
So, although these are quite dated, I think, perhaps the most powerful research ever done was the Milgram experiments on deference to authority. Milgram was, essentially, showing that in any reasonable size town in America, he could find people who would be willing to pull the shock lever to pretty high voltage simply because they were instructed to do so by power. And I think the Milgram studies and Asch’s conformity studies, they have shown us, time and again, how powerful the forces towards sort of conformity and deference in hierarchies is. And that is such a potent set of research to remind ourselves why we have to sort of choose courage and change systems.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Jim Detert
So, I love some of the classic fiction books, like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, these books that you say, “Gosh, 50 years, or however ahead of time, these people, even though writing fiction, really foresaw a world that was going to come into being.” Also, recently, a much more recent favorite, I read a book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. He was sort of a Buddhist monk who, essentially, in this book is saying, “Stop trying to change everything in yourself and everybody else. The first step is just awareness,” and then has a lot of tips on how to just become more mindful and self-aware.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I tell you, I was thinking about this notion of tools, and I felt a little bit like a Luddite because I’m not so much of a tools guy. But I will tell you that what I love, actually, are intellectual frameworks. A simple one, very consistent with the conversation we’re having, is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor two-by-two framework where she describes being radically candid as that beautiful combination of telling the truth but also having people understand you care.

And I love her off-quadrant descriptions of ruinous empathy, people who don’t tell the truth because they’re so worried about looking like they care, or people who are obnoxiously aggressive, they tell the truth but nobody thinks they’re doing it for the right reason. And I find that notion of having to move either from ruinous empathy or from obnoxious aggression toward that quadrant of caring honesty just such a compelling reminder when I work with folks.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Detert
So, I am a big reader of other folks’ advice on writing. And while people vary across the board – they write in the morning, they write at night, they write with a suit on, they write naked – you name it, there’s huge variance. But one thing that all writers seem to agree on is you got to have butt in seat, that books do not get written, articles do not get written, if you aren’t at the desk, if you aren’t writing.

And so, for me, a really important habit is just butt in seat. I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to think I’m going to have great wisdom, I just do it. And, in fact, when I wrote Choosing Courage, I set a goal that I was going to write 15 minutes every day, just 15 minutes, I said, “If that’s all I got in me, fine. I’m going to write 15 minutes every single day until it was written.” And I did. And some days, because that was such an easy goal to achieve, I wrote for several hours, but there was no pressure to do just 15. And I think I wrote the first draft of Choosing Courage in 173 days of my 15-minute rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that resonates with folks; you’re known for?

Jim Detert
So, I think I have said and seen multiple people quote this notion that leadership is not a popularity contest. We grow up thinking, because we see leaders as folks who emerge in the playground or in student council elections, or whatever, we think leadership is a popularity contest but great leadership is much, much harder than that and actually involves a willingness to sort of stand alone and sometimes do unpopular things. So, leadership is not a popularity contest. And then, more recently, I think this notion that competent courage comes from practice not any innate quality or capacity is, I think, something that has resonated with people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jim Detert
So, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I do a lot of writing and posting on LinkedIn. And I also have a website, simply JimDetert.com where my different projects, writing, curriculum, etc., are all shared.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jim Detert
Build that courage ladder for yourself and commit today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. Commit today to what you’re going to do. And the particular challenge, beyond just build the ladder and choose something, is lock yourself in. So, if you know you have a hard time following through on things you find sort of difficult or risky, put some stake in the ground. Tell your boss you’re going to do it. Make a pledge that you will give a sizable amount of money to a charity or political party you hate if you don’t take the action by a certain date. Somehow lock yourself in. That’s how people end up doing hard things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all your courageous choices.

Jim Detert
Thank you much. Same to you.