Welcome to our interview with David Marquet. David is the author of Turn the Ship Around, Leadership Expert and Former Nuclear Submarine Captain. You can learn more about David at Intent-Based Leadership.
I first learned of David Marquet and his work in 2012 when I read his article A Submarine Captain on the Power of Leadership Language in Fast Company magazine. After reading his book, I wrote a blog post for the Lead Change Group about what I had learned. Shortly thereafter, I met David Marquet when he visited the Washington, DC area. We hosted a leadership event with David where he was enthusiastically embraced by a packed auditorium of governement leaders and business executives.
Welcome David, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive and find meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
David Marquet: My short answer is that we give people more control. It’s all about giving control. Anytime you give control, it’s giving control within structure and giving control within bounds. But fundamentally it’s all about giving people control. Control over how they work, where they work, and what they work on.
Do you believe the experience you had aboard the USS Santa Fe that was featured in your book Turn the Ship Around accomplished the question we are asking here?
David: Yes, but we were driven there not from a desire to change things but out of survival. There was this idea that it really sucks to work here, and we need to make things better just from an ethical point of view. But it was really more about survival.
We were driven there out of survival instinct. I just physically couldn’t run around and manage people on a machine as complex as a nuclear submarine. If people are just going to give orders (including me), some of them will work and some of them won’t work. People will try to follow orders and we’re going to make a mistake.
We all know the situation where the leader gave an order and there’s this foreboding sense of this is perhaps not right or maybe we’ll get away with it. Then the organization does it and then it turns out that people die. It’s a legitimate fear. I tell people you don’t need to be pushed into it out of fear, I hope you are not. I much rather you see this as “the light on the hill” and move in that direction not from a place of fear but from a place of aspiration.
How do we give people more control?
David: The way we talk about giving people more control is there are two things. One is giving people the control part and the other one is the change that’s wrapped up in a change management structure. But basically, the way we give people control is by changing the language.
For example, we use a device called the Ladder of Leadership. Basically, there are seven layers and the safest path of least resistance is when someone comes to you and says, “Tell me what to do,” and when there’s an applied tell me what to do you just tell them what to do. It takes psychological strength to resist telling them what to do and to say instead, “Well, what’s your take on the situation or what do you see here or what would you do if you were me?” You need to jump track to the next higher level.
We have a very language based approach to it. We say philosophically you want to push authority to information as opposed to information to authority, but the mechanisms are the interactions that happen all day long. You can have a hundred of them all day long with all your people. They happen on email. They happen in meetings. They happen on the phone. They happen face-to-face. And in all those interactions, just be attuned to where the other person is and resist falling into the trap of telling them what to do.
It also requires knowing who owns what. Ownership is very important. Instead of focusing on past achievement, leaders focus on task ownership. In a traditional organization, we say, “Bill you’re responsible for this and on Tuesday I’m going to come down to your office with my little checklist and see how are you doing on steps 1, 2 and 3.” In that situation, we call it stealing ownership.
Even though I said it’s yours, my actions are really stealing the ownership, creativity and authority over it in the end because now you’re feeling, “Oh crap, now I need to answer a bunch of questions.”
So the onus is on ownership. “Go, this is yours. Let me know what you need.” But this is also a message that many times the workers and followers in the organization love to hear. Then I say, “But it puts a greater onus on you, a responsibility on you being transparent and visible to your boss about what you’re doing.” You say, “Oh great, I’m in charge of it,” then we go disappear into our cubby hole and come out in two months. No, no, that’s not going to work. You are going to lose the right to be in control of your life. Transparency is what gives you the right to be in control of your life.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
David: I would ask the question a little bit differently. I would say under what conditions do employees give their full attention and best performance? Because the question is from a mindset that I’m manipulating my employees. I’m getting them to give me my best attention and performance, as opposed to you know what, I really can’t control that. I can really only control myself, but if I set the environment right I can move in the direction of getting their full attention and best performance.
It’s like farming. I plant the seeds in fertile land and fertilize and water them. I don’t order seeds to grow, but they are going to grow. We think there is a duality, which is that the leader focuses on and is responsible for the environment. The employee focuses on and is responsible for their behavior.
For example, let’s say it’s Friday afternoon and the team is working late and one employee sneaks out the back door. In a healthy organization when we talk about that on Monday, the leader is asking, “What is it about the environment that is making it easy for that person to sneak out the back door as opposed to staying and helping the team?” The person who snuck out early says, “What about my behavior was unhelpful there?” There may be a good reason. Maybe their child was sick and he had to run out. Who knows. But in an unhealthy organization, it’s the opposite. The leader blames the person and says you don’t understand our core value of empathy and the person blames the environment. You have a toxic work environment. So that’s the worst situation. The best situation is when the people take responsibility for their behavior knowing that our behavior is powerfully shaped by the environment and vice versa. The leader takes responsibility for the environment knowing that even in the best of environments some peoples’ behavior will be bad behavior.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
David: I believe it’s control, value and purpose. When I think about the unpleasant times of my work, they were things like plenty of abuse and then you feel trapped because you feel like there’s no one to talk to. If you speak up, you’re going to get fired. You’re not a team player. You risk social ostracism and so it’s not safe to vent at work, so you come home and you vent at home. Maybe it’s safety, a sense of security.
I think 30 years ago our parents would have said, “I feel secure here.” They would have described workplace security as a feeling that they’re going to continue earning income. As opposed to now it’s more, “I feel like I can’t be my true self here and if you piss me off (even if you’re my boss) I’m going to let you know you pissed me off here.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
David: I think there are several important questions. “How can I help you?” “What are you trying to achieve?” “How can I help you achieve that?” “Is this company acting in a way that’s consistent with your principles?” “Do we have integrity between what we say and what we do with what we do with our clients, and what we do internally?”
Management is typically more secure in their job, they have a better perspective of what the organization is trying to do, they can muster more resources. They can say, “Well you want to take night school classes, then we can help pay for those.” “You want to take every Tuesday morning off so that you can take a pottery class?” “Great, we can figure out how to change your work schedule.” Management has a lot of ways of helping people and they should.
What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
David: “Is there anything I’m doing that is making it hard for you?” Employees need to understand the bounds of what they’re responsible for and what decisions they can make. “What are we trying to achieve here?”
I did an exercise called “sliders and sorts” the other day. We publish a periodic article called The Weekly Leadership Nudge. The idea is that too many times workers can hide behind death by 1001 questions. Leaders can kill initiative by asking too many questions, but workers can kill leaders’ attempts to give them any initiative by asking too many questions.
Do you remember we used to say, bring me a rock? The problem is management isn’t honest enough to say I don’t even know what this looks like, but I’m going to go talk to the secretary about this, and I need a framework for the discussion. Go work on it. Well, the employee says, “What are you trying to achieve?” You say, “Just go work on it.” I’m sympathetic to that because I want the team to put some brainpower into it. Then we ask ourselves if we were the boss, “What message would we want to get to the secretary?”
Well, a response might be, “Here are three key questions to ask.” Now when you come back to the boss rather than having open-ended questions while laying on your belly with your legs in the air saying, “Help me here.” Come in say, “Well we thought about it and we think there are three key points you need to bring up and the question is how provocative do you want to be in terms of do you want to tell him this is what we need to do or just open a conversation. Now it’s a much more helpful conversation.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
David: I’m hopeful that for more of humanity that work will become discretionary, something that we voluntarily do. So I think the question is, “How do I want to spend my time?” is the most practical sense of that question. Questions like, “What’s meaningful for me?” and “What’s my dream?”, those questions to me are a little bit to pie in the sky. I really don’t know what to do with them.
When I ask myself what do I want to do with my time, it makes it more concrete. For example, “What do you want to do tonight?” “What do you want to do tomorrow?” “What do you want to do next year?” “What do you want to do for the next decade?” Those are the type of questions I end up asking myself all the time. “Do I want to go do this talk or do I want to go hike the Alps?” “Do I want to go work out or do I want to do another 10 emails?” “Do I want to read this book or do I want to sit on an airplane?”
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