Keeping with David Marquet’s book Leadership is Language still, I’ve thought more and more about how we can create learning environments where we shift successfully between redwork (doing actual work e.g. analysis) and bluework (reflection and planning).

He outlines several key questions and issues that are key in understanding how we can move from what we think is good to a state where we, as a team, can do awesome work.

These relate to different mentalities, the kinds of power gradients that are at play within our organisations, and the way we choose to connect at work.


Be good vs. Get better

In the book, David makes a specific distinction between our “be good” self and “get better” self: our be-good self puts pressure on us to perform and to be good at what we do whereas our get-better self is about improvement and moving forward.

When we are in our be-good mode, we expect ourselves to know everything, not make mistakes, and figure things out even if we don’t even know where to look for answers.

We want to be and feel effective, capable, and good at what we do, and we often downplay other’s opinions especially if they haven’t been at our organisation as long as we have because we see ourselves to be in the know.

The problem with this mindset is obvious yet it is pervasive in most organisations where we defend our work, the way we do things, and are not always even open to think differently or embrace new ways of doing things.

But each of us also has a get-better self that is interested in learning, curious about others’ perspectives, and willing to admit that we don’t know it all and that there are multiple even more effective ways of doing the work.

Teams that have the get-better attitude are quicker to have open conversations about potential mistakes that have been made, but see these moments as opportunities to learn and improve.

Be-good mode is about doing what we always do whereas get-better attitude reminds us that we can and should keep learning, and that seldom only one person in a team knows the answer.

These two mindsets have a massive bearing on what becomes success:

“The gap between “good enough” and “awesome” on a creative thinking project is huge, whereas the same gap is small on an assembly line because there is a limited range of expected results from any individual worker” (p. 199).

Yet, as we more and more work in teams, it is essential that all members are able to move beyond the be-good image of themselves and practice the get-better mentality as this also opens up safe space for pointing out new ideas and raising issues where the team might be blindsided.


Connect through flatter hierarchies

 Another key issue at all organisations is the organisational environment, in particular power gradients and its impact on the flow of information.

Power gradient is “the amount of social distance there is between one person and another” (p. 220).

We know that the steeper the power gradienty is, the less there is actual flow of information, which leads often to many missed opportunities, worse products, and bad decisions as not all information is available that could be helpful.

In situations with steep power gradients the need for connection is often dismissed as unnecessary as the heavy command-and-control practices (do as you are told) are in place to ensure everyone acts within their role.

Yet, David reminds us of the importance of connection and how caring can in fact increase people’s intrinsic motivation to contribute and perform better:

“Instead of judging from a position of power, we walk alongside from a position of encouragement. This does not mean accepting whatever the person thinks or does. It does not mean shielding them from the consequences of their own behaviour, but it does mean removing unnecessary and artificially induced workplace inhibitors to feeling safe” (p. 219).

There are always going to be power gradients and different roles but as a team, specific attention should be directed at lowering barriers for people to voice their opinions.

Why this matters is pretty grave: because “the censoring of information is directly proportionate to the power gradient” (p. 221).

If the team feels that they are better off editing bad news and mistakes from the information they provide and share and don’t feel safe enough to actually voice opposition, the picture that emerges how things are going is likely to be false.

Keep in mind that it is usually not the junior person that can flatten power gradient but it is the job of those in “higher” positions to actively seek to lower such barriers.

This is tricky as usually those in more junior positions are much more aware of these gradients whereas those higher up don’t necessarily know or feel the effect they might be creating around them.


Ask questions + create an environment where awesome is the norm

The way we speak sends strong signals at what mentality we find ourselves in.

The book is full of examples of how we can change the way we connect, interact, and ask questions that can move the needle towards more open, transparent and equal processes of both doing the redwork and the bluework.

Asking questions like “What worked well that we want to keep and not change?”, and “If someone else had to take over this project, what would you tell them to make it even more successful?” helps in opening up space for discussion and new perspectives.

Acknowledging also that you don’t have all the answers can increase team willingness to share their opinions: “I don’t know yet how to run this process, what ideas could assist us in getting the best outcomes?”.

Sometime slight changes in questions can achieve a lot: instead of asking “Would it be helpful if I came to help you to sort this situation?”, try “How helpful would it be if I came to assist, on scale 0-5?”

As the whole book demonstrates, language does matter in how we engage ourselves and others, and it is (again) about being conscious on daily basis of the power that our words have.

Much of these insights of course are always relevant to climate change adaptation scientists as ever: asking more targeted reflective questions, being and remaining curious about the experiences and ideas stakeholders have to improve climate adaptation projects and activities, and being also ready to say “I don’t know” when we don’t have all the answers.

Given adaptation is a dynamic long-term process, we don’t have to and in many cases cannot have the definitive answers on what is successful or effective.

But changing our language and creating more open innovative working and implementation environments can help us too to uncover insights and experiences that enable adaptation to move from good-enough to awesome :).