Kenneth Flakes, PE
Five Takeaways After Reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown relies upon her decades of research and personal stories to describe daring leadership. Brown's book is organized around her four skill sets (parts) for courage which is required for daring leadership: Part One – Rumbling with Vulnerability, Part Two - Living into Our Values, Part Three – Braving Trust, and Part Four – Learning to Rise.
Below are just five of the many terms Brown discusses in Dare to Lead. I further explore these five terms because four of them were completely new to me and the other is a term that I believe cannot be emphasized enough. For each term, I provide some helpful tips through my additional research on how to apply each concept. I also provide my takeaway and recommendations for further readings.
1. PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY
Psychological safety is the belief that it is safe to speak openly without fear of being punished or judged for doing so. In Part One, Section One, The Moment and the Myths, Brown discusses that great leaders lean into their vulnerability to create a safe space for their teams to have difficult and emotional conversations. This safe space created by leaders within organizations leads to psychological safety in the workplace.
How to Create Psychological Safety
Below are some simple tips that leaders can practice for creating psychological safety in the workplace. Leaders must:
Be receptive to feedback
Be transparent and honest
Allow for mistakes
Connect with employees
Be active listeners
The Professional Plus Takeaway
Psychological safety is a new term to me, but as I reflect on my career, however, I believe the most successful teams that I have worked on had high psychological safety. Those teams were successful because there was little fear of judgment, punishment, or ridicule. I know that I am more willing to share my ideas and opinions when I know that my ideas are encouraged. In my opinion, discouragement can easily lead to disengagement which can result in less productivity within teams.
“The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth” by Amy C. Edmondson (Wiley; 2018)
“How Psychological Safety Actually Works” by Shane Snow (Forbes; May 4, 2020)
“15 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety at Work” by Forbes Business Development Council (Forbes; December 7, 2020)
2. STOCKDALE PARADOX
In Part One, Section Two, The Call to Courage, Brown explains her approach to balancing optimism and realism is rooted in the Stockdale Paradox.
Brown writes that in Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, Collins named the paradox after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for eight years. When Collins interviewed Stockdale for his book, he asked Stockdale which types of prisoners did not make it out of the prison camps. Collins explained to Stockdale that the optimists failed to make it out of the camps. The optimists felt they would be released by Christmas, then Easter, only to witness the years go by without leaving. This was heartbreaking and led to the other prisoners of war not surviving, but Stockdale gleaned value in this experience. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be," (p. 57) says Stockdale.
How to Practice Stockdale Paradox
Avoid blind optimism
Hope for success but be prepared for failure
Expect the unexpected
The Professional Plus Takeaway:
Before reading Dare to Lead, I was unfamiliar with Admiral Stockdale and his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It appears that his positive attitude allowed him to keep his sanity, yet his realism kept him grounded during extremely difficult times as a prisoner of war. Although the paradox is probably difficult to practice, I do believe that it could be quite helpful in dealing with challenging times at work. We must maintain a positive outlook on our current situations but be prepared with a plan to pivot should your situation get worse.
“The Flexible Mindset One Prisoner of War Practices to Overcome Challenges” by Dina Smith (Fast Company; August 19, 2020)
“The Stockdale Paradox: Maintaining a Gritty Mindset” by Jerry Toomer, Ph.D. (Psychology Today; September 7, 2020)
Empathy is the capacity to understand and share the feelings of another person. In Part One, Section Four, Shame and Empathy, Brown explores her five skills of empathy:
To see the world as others see it or perspective-taking
To be nonjudgmental
To understand another person’s feelings
To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings
With regards to perspective-taking, Brown profoundly states:
One of the signature mistakes with empathy is that we believe we can take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else. We can’t. Our lenses are soldered to who we are. What we can do, however, is honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours. That’s a challenge if you were raised in majority culture – white, straight, male, middle-class, Christian – and you were likely taught that your perspective is the correct perspective and everyone else needs to adjust their lens (p. 143).
Perspective-taking is a skill that is challenging in practice because it requires a person to learn more while many people believe they know.
How to Practice Empathy
Below are some proven strategies that Brown shares, and some I have researched elsewhere for practicing empathy in the workplace:
Know the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy”
Practice active listening
Assume positive intent
Be curious - “Tell me more about it”. “What are you thinking?” Who, what, when, how, and how
Show support - What can I do to help you?
The Professional Plus Takeaway:
Empathy is a skill that is often discussed, but in my opinion, often misunderstood or not practiced very well. Empathy can be difficult because it requires commitment and diligence to master. In my opinion, empathy is the most important of my five takeaways because I believe that empathetic leadership leads to greater team engagement, which leads to higher productivity.
“Making Empathy Central to Your Company Culture” by Jamil Zaki (Harvard Business Review; May 30, 2019)
“6 Expressions to Use That Show Empathy at Work” by Judith Humphrey (Fast Company; March 11, 2020)
“9 Practical Steps to Restore Empathy in the Workplace” by Phil Brabbs (Inc.; November 20, 2017)
4. POSITIVE INTENT
Brown defines the assumption of positive intent in Part Two, Living into Our Values. According to Brown, the assumption of positive intent “means that we will extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others” (p. 212).
For Brown, creating boundaries and believing that people are doing the best given their ability is paramount to the assumption of positive intent. The more defined the boundary, the more likely one is to assume positive intent. “Daring leaders”, says Brown, “work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can; leaders struggling with ego, armor, and/or a lack of skills do not make that assumption” (p. 215). Daring leaders are also willing to confront and address performance gaps with their reports. “As crazy as it sounds, many of us will choose to stay in resentment, disappointment, and frustration that come with believing people aren’t trying rather than face a difficult conversation about real deficits” (p. 215-216).
How to Practice Positive Intent
See below for advice that I have researched for how to practice positive intent:
Give people the benefit of the doubt
Practice active listening
Avoid making assumptions
Don’t let the past affect the present
The Professional Plus Take:
I generally believe that most workers are working to the best of their ability. I think oftentimes, leaders overlook or ignore factors that could affect the performance of team members. Before assigning negative intent, leaders should assume that team members are giving their best effort. Leaders should also consider that their response to a team member’s failure would likely be different if he or she assumed the best intent versus half-hearted intent. If a team member is giving the best intent and failing, then maybe the team lead should look inward and ask himself what more can be done to support the team member.
“How to Encourage Employees to Assume Best Intent” by Tanya Hall (Inc.; April 20, 2017)
5. CONSPIRACIES AND CONFABULATION
In Part Four, Learning to Rise, Brown discusses how conspiracies and confabulations can permeate within an organization and spin out of control. Brown defines conspiracy theories as “stories based on limited real data and plentiful imagined data, blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality” (p. 260). According to Brown, “A confabulation is a lie told honestly. To confabulate is to replace missing information with something false that we believe to be true” (p. 261).
Brown further states that “Confabulation shows up at work when we share what we believe is factual information, but it’s really just our opinion…..The information might have no basis in truth, none at all; it’s a confabulation. I believe it’s true, but it’s my fear, combined with what might be a little bit of data. And it’s dangerous” (p. 261-262).
How to Prevent Conspiracies
The best way to prevent conspiracies is for leaders to squash them early. Leaders and workers both play a part in the spread of conspiracies. Below are some simple suggestions on what can be done to prevent conspiracies from spiraling out of control:
Leaders should communicate regularly with their employees
Leaders should make people feel included in the process
Leaders can give workers more control over their outcomes
Workers can practice critical thinking
Workers should accept that some things are outside of their control
Workers should think positively
How to Treat Confabulation
According to a Web MD article about confabulation, there are several strategies for treating coworkers who confabulate, which include:
Avoiding leading questions
Allowing extra time for processing
Using simple language
Checking to see if they understand
The Professional Plus Takeaway:
In my experience conspiracies and confabulations occur most often when leadership is not completely transparent with their teams. Team members simply wanted to be kept in the loop. Leaders must be honest and transparent with their team. Some information cannot be disclosed, but leaders should be clear with their teams that they are revealing as much information as possible. Leaders should also promise to keep their teams regularly updated once cleared to disclose further information.
“How to Inoculate Your Team Against Conspiracy Theories” by Cynthia Wang, Jennifer Whitson, Tanya Menon, Joongseo Kim, and Brian D. Webster (Harvard Business Review; July 30, 2020)
“Conspiracy Theories: Why Some People Are Susceptible and How to Protect Yourself” by Angela Haupt (Washington Post; October 19, 2020)
“What to Know About Confabulation” Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD (WebMD; May 26, 2021)
Brené Brown considers rumbling with vulnerability a core skill for developing courage, which is needed for daring leadership (p 11). Brown even devotes nearly two-thirds of her book to rumbling with vulnerability. Psychological safety in the workplace, balancing faith and facts during a crisis, and empathetic leadership requires leaders to be vulnerable. Brown’s data however shows that vulnerability is often considered a weakness. I wonder if this explains why some leaders lack the courage to become daring leaders.
Lastly, rumbling with vulnerability requires that leaders embrace difficult conversations. Upon revisiting the advice that I provide for practicing each concept above, communication was common for each except for the Stockdale Paradox. Listening, for example, is an overlooked aspect of communication, but active listening is important for practicing psychological safety, positive intent, and empathy. Connecting with team members is important for developing psychological safety and practicing empathy. Regular communication with team members can help prevent conspiracies from destroying work environments.
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