Leadership Nudge® 347 – Leaders Fix the Environment, Not the People

April 21, 2021by Sandy Wilmer

You can’t fix people. They don’t need fixing. What you can do is create the environment where it makes it easy for people to do the behavior that you’re looking for.


Hey, David Marquet here.  

I want to talk about Principle 5 of Intent-Based Leadership, which is Leaders Fix the Environment, Not People. Now, here’s how this works.  

Let’s say we have a positive behavior like speaking truth to power, or people speaking up in meetings, saying what they truly believe, not masking it, because it’s uncomfortable for the group or the leader’s probably not going to want to hear it. Now, this is a positive behavior. And teams that can exhibit this are more resilient and make better decisions than teams that don’t, so we want that to happen. 

Here’s how this works. Within the human population, there’s going to be variety of people’s propensity (or likelihood) to speak up. This is based on their personality and factors that are very hard for others to control. And generally speaking, the human population will follow some sort of a bell curve like this. And over here, we’ll say these are the extroverts. These people are going to speak up no matter what. And then over here, we have the introverts. And these people are the quiet people in the meeting. They’re much less likely to speak. 

Most of the people are in the middle. 

And we see someone and they’re not speaking up. Well, the problem is, the behavior of speaking up is an intersection between the person’s propensity to speak up, and how safe it feels to speak up in the moment, not in general, but at that moment in that meeting based on what’s going on around them.  

So we represent that with this red line, this is the threshold, the safety threshold, and people over here are going to speak up, and people over here are not likely to speak up. The traditional view is to say, well, all these people over here, you’re somehow broken. I’m going to send you to training, and you’re going to go into this group. Then you’re going to start speaking up. This is wrong. You can’t fix people, you can’t fix people’s personalities, they don’t need fixing. And you can’t do it anyway. If you want to change someone’s personality, change your own. 

What leaders do is move this boundary line over. And by doing so, what we do is capture a whole lot more people. Now, the people haven’t changed. But what we see now I get all these people speaking up. Well, no one changed their behavior, but the boundary line changed.  

How do we change the boundary line? This is what I mean by fixing the environment. We ask questions in a way that are not threatening and we structure the meeting. So, for example, the leaders view goes last, if at all. We vote first and then discuss. When people do offer dissenting and outlying opinions, the rest of the group responds with curiosity, not challenging and attacking. And as a result, this boundary line can move over, over and over and over. And then, pretty soon, we start capturing more and more people. And I think this person’s really quiet. When I see that person speaking I’m like, wow, we’re really winning. Because if I can get that person to speak, then I must have captured all these people in here. So the idea is, don’t try and fix individual people. Create the environment where it makes it easy for people to do the behavior that you’re looking for and that’ll capture much, much more and be much more successful. And by the way, you can’t actually, “change people’s behavior.”  

I’m David Marquet. That’s your Leadership Nudge. 

Sandy Wilmer