I have spent the last several months teaching my teenage daughter to drive. My shortcomings in teaching her to park, back up, and anticipate hazards forced me to reflect on my own leadership tendencies. The experience has reminded me about the importance of mutual trust between a leader and their direct report.
One day, as I was coaching her to back out of the driveway, I noticed the unmistakable look of pure frustration on her face as I described every obstacle she could bump into while shifting into reverse. She shifted her eyes to the guardrail on the left, the series of trees on the right, and the electrical pole as she backed around the corner. She over-corrected as we approached each obstacle making every inch of movement more difficult. My voice grew louder and more impatient. I continued to explain that she needed to turn the wheel this way and that way until the frustration came to a dramatic crescendo. The vehicle was sideways in the driveway, and tears ran down her face.
What happened? It was an erosion of trust. I failed to trust that she could observe the obstacles in her path and would ask questions if she needed more guidance. Because of my approach, she no longer trusted me to be a patient coach along the way. To my surprise, the next day, she jumped in the vehicle alone and backed out of the driveway effortlessly. She proudly waited behind the wheel for me to walk down to meet her. I quickly realized that my leadership approach was the problem.
Leaders rely on their people to make them successful. Setting the environment for them to succeed is the first step. People thrive in an environment where they are not fearful of making mistakes. In my daughter’s case, I forced her to focus on avoiding failure rather than finding her own way to succeed. The same leadership challenge is true in business. We need innovation, creativity, and new perspectives to remain competitive. Are we setting the right environment, or are we focused on avoiding mistakes?
Research finds that organizations benefit from a diversity of thought with people from different backgrounds and experiences. These organizations move faster and are better postured to recognize and solve complex problems with creative solutions. Leveraging the group’s wisdom means ensuring that your team is willing to speak up and share their thoughts. Leaders benefit from setting an environment where team members believe they won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. People must feel comfortable being themselves and putting it all on the line.
Silent compliance is a true sign of dysfunction. Teams should feel comfortable with disagreement, naïve questions, or unique ideas. A lack of mutual trust not only inhibits creativity; it also degrades overall employee engagement and motivation. This environment could even spur employees to vote with their feet and walk out the door.
Do we as leaders trust our direct reports enough to apply their own skills and attributes to solving challenging business problems? Do they trust us to be creative and innovative without fear of failure and repercussion?
Creative and innovative people need room to experiment, learn, and grow–much like attempting to back out of the driveway for the first time. As leaders, we have opportunities every day to enable our team to find their unique path to success in a supportive environment. Let’s help our teammates blaze their own paths by focusing on the openings rather than the obstacles!