Read part two of our interview with Erika Andersen at Two Powerful Questions at the Heart of Change.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Erika: I want to go in two directions with that question. First is “where your voice matters,” and it's such an important question. In a recent podcast, I talked with this wonderful guy named Kevin Hancock, a CEO of a lumber company. He's also worked with Native American communities, and he's a huge proponent of shared leadership and giving people voices. We had a wonderful conversation, and he really reaffirmed what I've always felt.
The way to make sure everybody has a voice is to give them a voice.
There are just too many organizations where people aren't allowed to speak or where they're immediately shushed, reassured, dismissed, disagreed with, and given explanations why their voice doesn't make sense. So just really listening.
The other thing I've been thinking about lately is one of our axioms at Proteus is that listening is the foundation of success. And I really believe that's true. In every possible kind of human relationship, in intimate relationships, as a parent, colleague, salesperson, and manager, if you start by genuinely listening, listening to understand, you're in good shape, and all good things will arise from that.
And then the other half of that question is about how change and innovation happen naturally. Well, I think that's, as you know, one of the core things I'm talking about in this new Change From the Inside Out book, which is, how do we rewire ourselves to become change capable – to overcome our very deeply wired and I think historical hesitation and fear and concern about change.
We'll talk a lot more about this, but listening is core to that too. One of the best ways we’ve found over the years, whether we're working on a small change or big organizational transformation, is to truly, deeply listen to the concerns, fears, and hesitations of the people most affected by the change. And if you start by doing that, then it's much easier for those people to make that mental shift in order to see how the change could be a positive thing.
What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?
Erika: To give them your full attention and your best performance. We're so deeply wired for fairness and what has come to be called equity.
What I've noticed over the years about managers and leaders in every regard, and it's especially true of change, but it's always true: You know the thing they tell you in airplanes about putting on your own mask before attempting to help others? Be fully present, do your best work, and be honest, authentic, and sincere in what you say.
That is such a model for people–not everyone, because some people are too defended or too scared or too whatever–but for most people, it calls out from them the same thing. They see that it's safe when you're modeling it. Then they're willing and able to be that too.
Bill: That's so important. I've worked in corporations where everybody's walking on eggshells. You feel you have to edit yourself in every conversation, and at some point, somebody has the courage to step outside of that, and it changes everything. It gives everybody permission to speak more openly.
Erika: Totally. And when it's the leader, it's so powerful. I've had the wonderful opportunity to work with many excellent, authentic, smart, honest leaders: many who wanted to be that and some who weren't. I've seen it all.
When a leader models honesty and vulnerability, it completely changes the dynamic in the group around them.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Erika: I think that the new generations, the Millennials, and Generation Zs, are helping us with this question. When I was a young person at work –and I never thought this was right, I never liked it– the expectation 40 or 50 years ago was that you would leave most of yourself in a box by the door and bring kind of your “work self” and be pretty much just the worker bee. It's a holdover from the 19th century and early 20th century. So much creativity, joy, productivity, and other wonderful things were lost.
And I think now young people expect that we're going to bring our whole selves. It's messier, and it takes more time to wrangle and come together and see what's important to people, but when you have a worker, let's say someone in their 20s and 30s who really believes deeply in the purpose of the organization and is bringing their whole self to their work, you get so much more creativity and so much more, usually, even connection with the customer because the employee feels like, "I'm the customer of this enterprise as well." I feel it's really important to let people bring their whole selves and support them to bring their whole selves.
I was coaching someone recently, a CEO of this very fast-growing company, great guy. His main learning is how to send less and take in more and listen more. He's very open to it. And we were talking about getting the real story from people, and I said, "Okay, so the first step is making room for that. It's asking them, really taking the time, and creating a venue to listen to them."
And even more important is what you do when they say something.
If you want people to tell you the real stuff, then your first response can never be explaining it away, dismissing it subtly, telling them how they're not really seeing it clearly. Anything that dismisses that first response, then they just won't do it anymore. That's it. You're done.
If the first response is pure listening–because that's a risk, right? When you're the boss, and your employee is telling you something honest that isn't necessarily positive, and your first response is just deep listening, like, “Oh wow, let me understand that,” and curious questions and summarizing to make sure you understand. That, more than anything else, will convince the person that you're serious and that you really do want to hear their voice.
This man, Kevin, that I was doing this podcast with that I mentioned previously, said this one great thing, and I really agree with him. I loved how he said it. He said, "When you're really trying to build trust, you're listening to understand, not validate or invalidate. You just literally want to understand where the person is coming from."
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Erika: I think it's less important what the question is and more important where it's coming from. Questions that arise from curiosity, from true curiosity, “I really want to understand where you're coming from, how you see this, why you did it that way,” True curiosity is relentless in a positive way: "I want to understand. I want to explore. I want to get what's happening here." I think curious questions from leaders are almost never bad. It's all about the intention. It's not about the words.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Erika: I think it's the intent of the questions. The most important kind of questions for followers or employees to ask leaders are questions that help them find out who that person is. One of the books I wrote was called, Leading So People Will Follow. There are certain timeless, culture-less characteristics that it turns out people look for in leaders to decide whether or not it's safe to sign up for that person's leadership,
I won't tell you the whole book, but we discovered that there are six things. We want leaders–and it's an age-old, almost a survival mechanism–we want leaders who are farsighted, who can see and articulate a compelling and inclusive vision of the future, and who are passionate. And that doesn't mean loud or charismatic, it means deeply committed, but still permeable—not dogmatic. Courageous, which means primarily that they will do difficult things for the good of the enterprise. Overcome their personal hesitations and difficulties for the good of the enterprise. Wise, which means they learn from their experience, and they share that learning. They think deeply about their experience and share it generously, which means exactly what it says. Generous with time, resources, knowledge, insight, responsibility. And finally. trustworthy.
And so those are the kinds of questions that people should ask their leaders. Just ask and then watch them as they answer and find out, not only by their answers, but by whether their actions line up with their answers, whether they are those farsighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous, and trustworthy people.
It's interesting because after I figured out these six things, while I was writing the book we created a multi-rater assessment so leaders could ask their people and get feedback on whether they're demonstrating these six attributes. And the person who helped us create the assessment was a statistician, and she found out two really interesting things that showed me my premise was correct. These six attributes are highly correlated with followability. People do want to follow people who have these attributes. And she also found out that all of them, and I thought this was such a great sentence, are necessary but not sufficient. Meaning you can't just over-index on trustworthiness and forget about everything else–that people are looking for all of these things.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Erika: The two questions that immediately come to mind are–and they're questions that you should ask your whole life and keep asking: “Who am I?” That question has deeper and deeper and deeper answers all the time. And in a given situation, “Is this true for me? Is this real for me?” Because I feel like lots of times, we end up doing things that aren't true for us, aren't real for us, and we don't realize that. We're not conscious. So we get into these situations where we're doing things or committed to something that really isn't good for us, isn't real for us, isn't true for us. We disagree with them. We don't support them, but we've locked ourselves into them because we didn't ask ourselves that question early on enough.
The beautiful thing about both of those questions–“Who am I?” “Is this true or real for me?” –I feel like the most powerful people are the people who are cohesive. They are who they are all the way out. They are who they are, no matter who they're talking to, no matter what situation they're in. And I think that is powerful in a positive way. A great example: the Dalai Lama. These people really do know who they are and what's true for them, and that just shines out through their every communication, their every interaction, their every action. If we want to be a light in the world, if we want to be powerful people in the world, we have to get very clear about who we are and what's real for us.
What's the number one (or two or three) takeaway you'd like people to get from your most recent book, Change from the Inside Out?
Erika: The most important thing I want people to take away is that we can rewire ourselves to become more capable of change. We are capable of managing our self-talk, and that's the main task we all have to do to change our response to change. By knowing that this mindset shift is the heart of change-capability, when a change comes at you, you can immediately look for ways to see the change as potentially easier, or at least doable, rewarding and normal.
And you do that by managing your self-talk. You notice that you're saying to yourself, for instance, "Oh, this is going to be such a complete pain in the neck. I hate this." But then you can say to yourself, “Hold up. What if I asked myself, ‘How could it be easy? How could I make it easy? What could it give me versus what it's taking away? How could I see this as normal?’”
You just coach yourself. You change your self-talk. I would love for people to know that that is absolutely possible.
And the second thing I want them to know is this will really help you thrive in this world of non-stop change that we live in and are going to live in now.
Bill: I liked your point in the book about asking, “How can we…? “Related to this idea, it's also the first three words in the first question I asked in this interview. It's a really simple but powerful question.
Erika: I totally agree. It just sets up your brain. I'd love to do more research about this. Something happens in your brain when you ask yourself a how can we or how can I question. You just start looking at possibilities in this kind of practical way.