Are your employees afraid to embarrass themselves?

Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I have a fascination with Epic Fantasy novels and I find many management lessons in them. Yesterday, it happened again. I am currently reading Terry Goodkind’s Soul of the Fire and came across between two characters. I need to set the stage. These are newlyweds (Richard and Kahlan) that are deeply in love. They also had a number of extraordinary experiences and learned to trust one another deeply. Now, check out this exchange between them.

‘Then… what?’

‘Joseph Ander was a wizard, and the wizards of his time were able to do things even Zedd would find astounding. Perhaps Joseph simply used this rock as a starting place’

‘What do you mean? How?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know as much about magic as you – maybe you could tell me. But what if he simply took a small rock from here for each Dominine Dirtch and then when he got to where they are today, made them big.’

‘Made them big?’

Richard opened his hands in a helpless gesture. ‘I don’t know. Used magic to make the rock grow…’

“I was thinking you were going to come up with something silly’ Kahlan said. ‘That actually makes sense, as far as I know about magic’

Richard was relieved not to have embarrassed himself.

If for a moment you ignore the fact that the conversation deals with magic, you will notice that this is a conversation that happens in every office around the world every day. Usually, the conversation is in our heads. The most important part of this exchange is actually the last line: “Richard was relieved not to have embarrassed himself”.

Here is a man, a leader of men, talking to the love of his life, who he shared life and death experiences with and learned to trust. And still, he is afraid to speak up his mind. He is afraid to be embarrassed.

I ask you this: how many times in your life did you want to speak up and haven’t because you felt afraid to be embarrassed. How many times does it happen to your peers or employees every day? More importantly, what are we missing because of this?

In the story, this conversation led to an important discovery. And if you substitute “Magic” with “Science”, “Marketing”, “Finance” or any other word, you can see the resemblance to the quote. To some people, these professions also seem like magic.

There is a term in the research of teams called psychological safety developed greatly by Harvard researcher Amy C. Edmondson. It deals with how safe do team members feel in voicing their opinions, talking against the accepted norms and how generally confident are they that when they will speak up, they wouldn’t be ridiculed and their thoughts will be accepted positively even if they are wrong.

There is a lot of talk about diversity in the workforce and its importance.  But in order to enjoy the benefits of diverse opinions, viewpoints and thoughts, managers must take action and make sure their people feel safe to speak up.

Yesterday, in his wonderful daily newsletter, Hugh MacLeod wrote:

We all like to make fun of the folks who we think are a bit deluded. But, given that much of success in life is gained through dogged determination and no taking “no” for an answer, being deluded is highly underrated. When it comes to work, career, love, a touch of delusion is probably a very useful device.

Great ideas and inventions come from the Iconoclasters, people who go against the established dogma or conventions. Deluded people. But if we want to enjoy their wisdom, we need to let them speak, and more importantly, feel safe to speak.



One Response to “Are your employees afraid to embarrass themselves?”

  1. Just sort of happened « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] the idea of psychological safety. If you want your team to engage in learning and creativity, than creative an atmosphere where […]

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