“I’m no longer quite sure what the question is, but I do know that the answer is yes.” – Leonard Bernstein
It’s easy to live in a world of “no”. The world seems chaotic and often scary, and when we’re surrounded by chaos and fear, as humans we have a natural tendency to seek safety. It’s how we’re wired. Thousands of years ago, I’m sure our ancestors went back to the cave and hid when they were afraid. In our own 21st-century way, we still do that today.
Saying “no” to things that are different or unknown to us is one of the ways we think we can keep ourselves safe. We push back on new ideas because those new ideas may not be exactly perfect. We push back on trying new things because those new things may go wrong and lead to some outcomes we don’t like.
When I’m working with a team, I usually can identify who in the group is afraid simply by identifying the person or people who are constantly knocking down everyone’s ideas. Their response to being uncomfortable (feeling “unsafe”) is to repeatedly say “no”.
We can’t lead that way. As leaders, we can’t be the people who are always trying to keep from leaving the cave. We can’t think about ideas or changes and immediately assume it can’t work. Our default setting can’t be “no”.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should just do whatever anybody suggests. Some ideas aren’t a great fit. Some changes aren’t for the better. We can’t just do every new thing that presents itself.
What we can do is default to “yes”. When we hear new ideas, or are presented with a possibility of change, our initial response needs to be to figure out how that new idea or change could be great. How could we make this work? How could this new process or person or whatever be a great thing for us? How could we take advantage of this?
One of the most successful organizations I’ve ever been around has a simple rule: whenever a team member makes a suggestion or comes up with a new idea, no one is allowed to criticize it or tear it down for ten minutes. For that ten minutes, the group needs to think about how that idea might work and what kind of positive impact it might have.
That doesn’t mean they do every new idea; after that ten minutes is over, they may identify reasons to say “no”. But when you train yourself to start with “yes”, you create the possibility that you can and will do new things. Great leaders think about why things might be great; lousy leaders think about why things will fail. Which are you?