A True Mentor: How CK Prahalad Influenced My Career
Watch as Liz Wiseman introduces the Thinkers50 and discusses how her life and career were greatly impacted by CK Prahalad.
Creating Safety and Stretch
Liz Wiseman, Excerpt from Coaching@Work
What ensues when a leader enables only one of these conditions? When a boss continually challenges without first building a foundation of trust and respect, these challenges can produce debilitating anxiety rather than growth.
It was years after my first book Multipliers was published that I was finally able to summarize the core message of the book, boiling roughly 66,000 words down to two. These words capture the reason why some leaders bring out the best in others and get so much more from them: they create two simultaneous conditions: 1) Safety and 2) Stretch.
Creating Safety that Enables Stretch
The best leaders cultivate a climate that is both comfortable and intense. They are able to remove fear and create the security that invites people to do their best thinking. At the same time, they establish an intense environment that demands people’s best efforts.
As Amy Edmonson, Harvard Business School professor, writes in her book The Fearless Organization, “If leaders want to unleash individual and collective talent, they must foster a psychologically safe climate where employees feel free to contribute ideas, share information, and report mistakes.” A leader may foster this safe environment in a number of ways: encouraging risk taking, helping people recover from mistakes, asking for diverse perspectives, or acknowledging the unique talents of team members.
But simply having a safe environment alone doesn’t engender high performance. Edmondson goes on to say that not only do leaders need to build psychological safety, “they must set high standards and inspire and enable people to reach them.” The best leaders create the tension needed to achieve high performance. They do this by establishing stretch challenges, facilitating rigorous debate, and giving people full ownership while also holding them fully accountable. In other words, once a leader creates a “great place to work,” they expect people to do great work.
What ensues when a leader enables only one of these conditions? When a boss continually challenges without first building a foundation of trust and respect, these challenges can produce debilitating anxiety rather than growth. On the other hand, when a leader fosters a supportive environment but never asks others to do something truly difficult, her people feel appreciated but stagnant.
In my research for the book Rookie Smarts, I surveyed approximately one thousand people from across a variety of industries, asking them to indicate the current level of challenge in their jobs and their current levels of satisfaction. The results indicated a strong correlation between “challenge level” and “satisfaction level” at work. In other words, as challenge level goes up, so does satisfaction. In this state, people are doing hard work but experiencing great joy. It’s why people working for “multiplier” leaders typically report the experience as “somewhat exhausting but totally exhilarating.”
The Twin Conditions for Coaching
The coexistence of safety and stretch – where an individual feels safe to experiment and fail, yet challenged to perform at his best – is also at the heart of great coaching.
It is well understood that a coach must establish trust and earn permission to coach. But, if the coach focuses solely on building a trusting relationship, the process may be a feel-good experience that merely reinforces the status quo. On the other hand, coaches who overplay their role of provocateur may generate interesting conversation and a rush of intentions but produce no sustainable movement or growth.
Coaching that inspires both self-awareness and professional growth requires the presence of both trust and tension. As veteran executive coach Karol M. Wasylyshyn once told me, “A good coach knows when to be big and when to be small.” We are “small” as we listening intently, understanding our clients’ goals, and empathizing with their challenges. These moments, coupled with high degrees of professionalism and confidentiality, engender trust and earn the opportunity to “be big.” In moments of tension, a coach can challenge an assumption that might be holding the person back, speak an uncomfortable truth, or invite the person to operate in new ways.
When both factors (safety and stretch) are present, a virtuous learning cycle is spawned. People feel safe to be vulnerable and divulge their real thoughts and assumptions. This allows a coach to work at the level of their beliefs, which enables the coach to assist them in shaping new, lasting mindsets, not merely tweaking behavior.
The following practices can help executive coaches foster an environment where their clients feel safe to bring their best thinking and optimize their learning.
- Make it OK to fail. When people practice new mindsets and learn new skills, they are bound to trip up or take false steps. You can make it safe to fail by letting your client know that her first attempts at new practice will be wobbly and awkward. In addition to communicating what to expect of herself, encourage her to put a proverbial “student driver” sign on her car, alerting her colleagues that she is in learning mode. You can further put her at ease by sharing your own mistakes. Certainly good coaches keep their own “stuff” in the background; but periodically sharing a few of your own foibles will give implicit permission to take risk, make mistakes, and recover gracefully.
- Understand their native genius. When a person’s unique intelligence is seen and appreciated, it creates an environment where people can be their whole selves and perform at their best. Instead of simply conducting a 360-degree assessment to discover your client’s strengths and vulnerabilities, take time to understand what I call native genius – what he does easily and freely. Unlike the skills he’s developed on the job, native genius is what his mind does naturally, what it is built to do. When a coach can deeply see her client’s best qualities, she earns greater permission to help him build the adjacent skills he needs to excel in his current and future jobs.
- Add Levity. Leaders who operate with a sense of humor create an environment where people can contribute at their fullest. In his book The Levity Effect, Adrian Gostick draws upon multiple workplace studies to conclude that a) those who work in a fun environment have greater productivity and interpersonal effectiveness and b) humor strengthens relationships, reduces stress, and increases empathy. In the classroom, when professors used levity in their lectures, students scored 15 percent higher on exams. When our work is play, we forgive mistakes, improvise, learn and stick with difficult tasks. This levity effect lightens our loads, allowing us to climb more easily up an arduous learning curve and creates an environment where people can be vulnerable enough to tackle issues of greater gravitas.
When you create safety, you earn the right to ask people to stretch – to tackle difficult issues or take risks. Once you create a safety net, it’s time to ask people to attempt the tight rope. Here are three practices to encourage greater degrees of challenge in a coaching engagement.
- Ask better questions. It is well understood that the currency of coaching is questions, but if you want to enable more stretch, ask better questions – the type of questions that challenge assumptions and disrupt existing patterns of behavior. Curate a set provocative questions such as, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail?” or “How would you handle this situation if you were in this role forever?”
- Offer challenges instead of assignments. In an attempt to build new habits, a coach can give his clients too many assignments, thinking that more work equates to more growth. While repetition has its place, our greatest professional growth tends to come from doing something hard – something we don’t yet know how to do. As a coach, don’t just give your client more work to do, give her harder work. And, instead of giving your clients new behaviors to practice, establish a concrete challenge—define an intriguing puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered, such as, “How can you ensure that critical piece of work gets completed successfully and on time without either telling the team what to do or doing it yourself?”
- Size the challenge right. When a new challenge is too large, we tend to get overwhelmed and give up before we might fail. However, when the level of challenge is too small (meaning we can do it easily), we never really seize hold of the challenge. To create the right degree of difficulty, size the challenge so it feels just within reach, but only if your client really stretches. You can take the guesswork out of this calibration by simply letting your client set the degree of difficulty. You might ask, “What would be difficult enough to make you really stretch but not break?”
When managers create the dual conditions of safety and stretch, their employees perform beyond what they thought possible. When coaches do the same, the learner can grow faster and further than was thought possible. The experience will likely be uncomfortable, full of difficult moments and growing pains, but it will also be full of joy. Why? Because when we feel comfortable being ourselves, we’re at our best dealing with uncomfortable challenges. And, that’s a state that can be exhausting but totally exhilarating.
 Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019, p. xvi)
 Amy Edmondson, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2019, p. 21)
 Our research shows that those who are the least challenged are 40 percent less challenged than the average and those who are the most challenged are 36 percent more challenged than the average.
 Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher, The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up
(Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008).