How to Be a Great Leader: 4 Ways to Encourage Your Team

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership Is Language" by L. David Marquet. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you struggling to connect with your employees? How can you be a great leader to them?

Businesses today struggle with getting team members to do more than just their job. Teams should strive to be collaborative and experiment on their own, and the only way to do that is if leaders encourage it.

Continue reading to learn how to be a great leader that fosters a healthy environment and productive relationships at work.

Encourage Collaboration and Experimentation

In today’s business environment, the traditional work model prevents organizations from achieving their potential. L. David Marquet’s book Leadership Is Language advises that you should learn how to be a great leader by encouraging collaboration during the brainstorming part of a project and experimentation during the execution part of a project. This means that leaders should use language differently to get employees to be more proactive, thoughtful decision-makers. Doing this can foster innovation, prevent disasters, and enhance work performance.

Since workers tend to default to executing, you must purposefully promote collaboration and experimentation. You can do this by breaking down obstacles that prevent people from voicing their diverse ideas and perspectives. Let’s look at four steps for structuring more collaboration and experimentation into your team’s workflow.

Encourage Employees to Make Decisions by Empowering Them With Information

In No Rules Rules, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings shares Marquet’s belief that employees should make decisions, but his approach focuses less on encouraging them to collaborate and experiment through language and more on ensuring they have the necessary information to make independent decisions. This means being transparent with information—even sensitive financial data. When you provide workers with more information, you empower them to take risks and entrust them with the responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions. To ensure your team makes decisions that are good for the organization, Hastings writes that you must build a team of talented individuals you trust and give them direction by providing relevant information about your goals and values.

1. Build Relationships and Break Down Barriers

Before you can have a collaborative session with your team, you must foster an environment of psychological safety where people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives. While many workplaces encourage workers to take the initiative to participate, Marquet argues that it should be the leader’s responsibility to involve them. This is because workplace hierarchies and the fear of jeopardizing relationships can create barriers to participation. By breaking down these barriers and fostering comfort and strong relationships, your team is more likely to think and perform well.

As a leader, you can break down barriers and foster psychological safety in three ways: 

Reduce power differences. Lower your appearance of superiority and practice vulnerability so people feel comfortable speaking honestly. Voice your real emotions (such as doubt and uncertainty). Similarly, use language that implies you’re doing things with people rather than to or for them. For example, say “Let’s do this differently” instead of “I need you to do this differently.” To further reduce power differences, Marquet recommends that you make yourself more accessible by being around your team more. He argues that the lower the power difference, the less people tend to censor their words.

Encourage and observe, rather than judge. Remind people that you want to hear from them. For example, tell them you value their unique perspective, and promise to listen to them without judgment. Similarly, when you give praise, observe rather than judge. Instead of telling them “good job” (which is your personal assessment of good or bad), say how they did a good job. For example: “Thank you for speaking up about the error you noticed in the project yesterday. That will save the team a lot of time.”

Cultivate trust. Marquet suggests that you should trust your team from the start, rather than expect them to prove themselves first. This is because when you trust them to do something, you encourage them to meet your expectations and be more committed to accomplishing the task than if you didn’t trust them.

2. Launch Into Collaboration and Generate a Hypothesis

Once you’ve lowered the barrier to participation, you can have your first collaboration session to weigh your options and decide upon a course of action. Let’s look at how to communicate in ways that encourage open participation during these sessions.

Normalize Pause Points and Manage Time Proactively

As we discussed earlier, people tend to get stuck in execution mode because it takes less effort to plow on with a task mindlessly. To prevent your team from getting stuck in execution mode, introduce the concept of pause points when you meet for collaboration. Make it easier for your team to call a pause point by deciding on a name for them (like a “mindful moment”) or schedule them in advance. This creates more opportunities to adjust your course of action and make new decisions rather than getting stuck with the first decision you and your team made.

To lower the barrier for calling timeouts, Marquet suggests using language that conveys vulnerability instead of certainty, such as, “I’m not sure if this is the best approach given that a couple of team members are absent today. Let’s see what we learn and revisit this decision in four hours.” This allows team members to feel comfortable calling pause points and expressing concerns while they work.

Invite Comfortable and Honest Participation

Once you’ve introduced and encouraged your team to call for pause points if needed, collaborate on brainstorming your options. To do so, ensure that everyone feels comfortable enough to participate. Accomplish this by asking open-ended questions, voting on options before discussing them, and encouraging dissent.

Open-ended questions: Marquet suggests using “how” and “what” questions to avoid implying that one option is better than another. For example, you could ask, “How strongly do you feel about Option A and Option B?”

Vote first: Before anyone shares their thoughts on which option seems best, encourage honesty by having everyone vote on the options first. This prevents biases that commonly affect people’s opinions, such as giving more weight to the first option they hear. Marquet suggests using methods like probability cards or a fist-to-five voting method. Probability cards involve each member voting with a card with numbers like 1 or 80 or 99, where 1 indicates strong disagreement and 99 indicates strong agreement. The fist-to-five method involves showing agreement using their fingers, with a closed fist meaning strong disagreement and five fingers meaning strong agreement.

Encourage dissent: Remind your team that to generate better solutions, they should be curious and open to different ideas and perspectives. Get your team comfortable with dissent, for instance, by having members play devil’s advocate. Marquet also recommends encouraging dissent over consensus when contemplating the best course of action. This is because people tend to try to agree with one another, which can cause you and your team to lose valuable insights and innovative ideas.

Decide on a Hypothesis to Test

Once you’ve brainstormed ideas, your team must decide on a course of action to take. Marquet suggests you treat your decision like a hypothesis—an assumption to test—rather than as something that’s fixed and unable to be changed. This mindset is more flexible and allows you to pivot to new directions if needed.

When selecting a hypothesis, Marquet writes that the final decision should be made by someone other than the person who proposed the idea. People tend to become emotionally invested in their own suggestions and often favor their ideas over others’ ideas. To avoid this, Marquet suggests that team members decide on the hypothesis to test while the leader has the final say to approve or reject it.

3. Run an Experiment to Test the Hypothesis

Once you’ve decided on a hypothesis, it’s time to dive into experimentation so you can test it out. Marquet doesn’t cover specific techniques on how to execute your experiment, as this will look different for every organization, but he does offer advice on how to make your experiment as effective as possible.

Before your team launches into work, you may find that some members of your team disagree with the decided course of action. In spite of this, you can still encourage everyone to put in their best effort by simply asking that they commit to testing the hypothesis as part of a learning process. Don’t try to convince everyone that the hypothesis is right—you’re simply trying out a course of action and seeing what happens. By trying to convince people, you’d be asking them to change their beliefs. This would discourage them from expressing their unique perspectives.

(Shortform note: It may be easier for workers to commit to testing hypotheses that they personally disagree with if your team has a common mission—a big-picture goal your whole team shares. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge suggests you create a shared vision by finding out what each of your team members values and trying to include those values in your vision in some way. That way, each team member may have a different personal motivation, but your entire team still works toward the same end goal. For example, in a high school, staff members may have different ideas of what curricula or teaching methods are best for students, but they can all share the goal of providing students with quality education.)

Additionally, before beginning your experimentation, set a time when you and your team will regroup and analyze the results (the steps we’ll discuss next). By planning a time to review the hypothesis and the experiment, your team can focus completely on carrying out your course of action without constantly questioning their work.

(Shortform note: When setting a time to review your decision, it might also be helpful to establish a clear definition of failure. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries argues that knowing what failure looks like can make it easier for your team to recognize when it’s time to regroup and pivot. That way, team members can still focus on their task without constantly second-guessing their approach. However, if a situation starts looking like your definition of failure, a team member can take initiative and call a pause point.)

4. Regroup and Reflect

After conducting your experiment, regroup with your team at your preappointed time to reflect on the results. Without deliberate time for reflection, you risk getting stuck with a bad decision or missing out on valuable insights for improvement. In your post-execution collaboration session, Marquet advises you to celebrate the completion of the experiment and encourage reflection.

How to Be a Great Leader: 4 Ways to Encourage Your Team

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of L. David Marquet's "Leadership Is Language" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Leadership Is Language summary:

  • Why most leadership language discourages workers from speaking up
  • A new approach to leadership that empowers workers to participate
  • How to create an adaptive, innovative, and high-performing workplace

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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