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Leaders Can Build Engagement By Giving Up Control

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When newly minted sub captain David Marquet took command of the U.S. nuclear submarine the USS Sante Fe back in the 1980s, he quickly discovered the shortcomings of the traditional naval master and commander leadership style.

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Keynote speaker David Marquet at the 2016 HRPA Annual Conference in Toronto.

"On our first day out of port we were doing some drills out in the Pacific and I decided to put a little stress on the crew," said Marquet during a keynote at the Human Resources Professionals Association's (HRPA) 2016 Annual Conference in January. "I switched power from the nuclear reactor to the electric auxiliary motors and told an officer to go to 2/3 power. He gave me a funny look and then went ahead and gave the order--all while knowing that was an impossibility on this new generation sub.

"He did what he was told without advising it wasn't an option because I had told him to and he was afraid of questioning and embarrassing me."

Marquet, a former US Navy captain turned author and leadership consultant, decided that day to buck naval tradition and stop giving orders--instead giving more decision-making authority to both his officers and crew.

His leadership experiment turned the terribly underperforming USS Santa Fe--"the Enron of the US Navy"--into one the best-performing submarines in the U.S. fleet within 12 months and produced a crop of naval officers that went on to successfully command other subs. Marquet wrote about his experience and leadership vision in the 2012 book Turn This Ship Around!: A Captain's Guide to Creating Leadership at Every Level.

While Marquet's decision to go from "know all, tell all" leadership to a more flat, collaborative approach was partly borne out of necessity (he was assigned at the last minute to the more modern sub that he knew little about and relied heavily on the crew for technical guidance), he quickly discovered that letting go of control helped create a far more engaged and effective crew. "We went from one leader to 124 active, thinking leaders," he said. "The crew went from being primarily motivated by avoiding mistakes--and doing nothing for fear of sticking their neck out--to being motivated by performance and trying new things."

Creating a decision-making culture

However, to encourage a more collaborative culture, Marquet says leaders must first create an environment that makes it safe to say "I don't know" and to voice their opinion.

"Organizations that operate with a sense of crisis all the time make people feel unsafe and creates an 'us vs them' type environment where people don't work together," he says. And on an individual level, stressed out people do not make great decisions--stress shuts down the part of the brain responsible for executive function and moves it to the brain's primitive "fight or flight" area responsible for survival. And a stressed out employee cares about little more than self-preservation, according to Marquet.

Creating a safe environment means changing your leadership language, moving away from fear-inducing questions like "Are you done"? to a more indirect "How is progress on the project"?; or "Are you sure"? to "How sure are you"?

It also means moving away from the silo-creating "they" to a more collaborative "we".

"On the Santa Fe, I banished "they" from our lexicon because no matter if you're in the engine room, the kitchen or the bridge, we're all interrelated on a nuclear sub--and that applies to all organizations," he says. "If someone came to me with a 'they need this..' they got ignored until it was rephrased. Soon the whole crew was saying 'we' and it went a long way to creating a culture of collaboration and teamwork."

Matching skills with decision-making

However, when you give people more control, a leader also has to give them the skills and competence to make decisions effectively, says Marquet.

"Build trust in your people's decision making by having conversations to hear what they're thinking--then you'll know what the gaps are in competence."

Ultimately, you want your people moving up the leadership ladder, going from being told what to do, to providing opinions and recommendations, to advising what they intend to do and what they have done.
The more comfortable your people are in making decisions on their own, the more control the leader is giving up.

"It's both scary and liberating," says Marquet.

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