“Drive out fear.”— Dr. Edward Demming; the 8th point of his famous 14 points for leadership.

In my coaching of all levels of leadership and of individual contributors, I find a common trait.  Everyone has some fear about speaking out in public, especially when they feel they will say something that could be any or all of the following:

  • Wrong
  • Perceived as a “stupid” 
  • Noting the obvious 
  • Against current popular opinion
  • That they will be stuck with that stated opinion even though they are just thinking things out

Unfortunately, this fear often stops people from furthering the conversation. Saying something that is wrong often helps lead to what is right. Saying something “stupid” often is exactly what was needed or leads to the “smart” idea everyone was missing.  Stating something obvious often brings everyone up a level to see the “obvious” things they were missing.  Popular opinion is often based on a current feeling, and someone needs to point out other directions that are possible.  Opinions evolve through conversation.

Everyone has at least some experience of fears that have stopped them from speaking out.  

Despite this, leaders often fail to lead in a way that drives up the courage to speak out.  Consider doing these five things to drive up courage in your project teams.

  1. Seek out the silent people on topics of interest.  You know some people should have spoken up that didn’t.  Talk to them one on one.  If they do have opinions, seek to understand what blocked them from bringing up their ideas.
  2. If something is “popular,” ask how the idea could go wrong.  I get worried when conversations have no friction because no plans are flawless.  Make room for the negative to be spoken out loud.
  3. Provide space for thinking.  Many leaders have traits of thinking on their feet and thinking through their ideas out loud.  Remember, others are not the same.  Provide those internal processors with a space inside or outside meetings.  Inside meetings, provide 3-5 minutes for people to write down ideas and then speak about them.  Outside meetings, give a write-in period.
  4. Eliminate fear factors.  I have seen very smart cynics provide perfectly funny sarcastic remarks. Everyone (except the speaker) laughed and that was the end of people providing “unsafe” comments.  As a leader, you must eliminate the behaviors and cultures that shut down ideas.
  5. Get external coaching. It is useful to get external viewpoints on what could be contributing to “fear factors” that shut out ideas.  It is also valuable to get coaching for individuals so they will speak even when the environment says contrarian ideas are not welcome.

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,


Alan Willett

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