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How to Source Suggestions from a Reluctant Team Member

How to Source Suggestions from a Reluctant Team Member
Published August 12, 2015 by David Marquet
In my first article, I introduced the “Ladder of Leadership” concept. The ladder (below) is a construct for measuring and affecting empowerment based upon the words people say. The goal is to move all of your team members up the ladder so they are operating autonomously. Each “rung” of the ladder has certain verbal signifiers that, as leaders, we must listen for to adjust our leading style.


The Ladder of Leadership

ast article, I challenged you to listen for “tell me what to do” from your people and suggested ways you might move them from level 1 “Tell me what to do” to Level 2 “I think.” This starts to shifts the burden of action from you, the leader, to them, the team member.

The purpose of the Ladder of Leadership is not to change other people, but to allow you to assess where other people are so that you can respond in the most helpful way. If you respond at the same level they are, then there’s no growth. If you respond too high, then there might be the temporary appearance of growth but it won’t be sustained.

In environments where an individual feels they are not valued, they are thinking, but they are probably keeping their thoughts to themselves. They are thinking about what job might suit them better, or they might be thinking about that their effort does not matter. Often they are thinking about how things could be better, or more efficient, or easier if only we did this or that. Unleashing that creativity and initiative is the role of the leader. When people are comfortable telling you what they think about a situation or a challenge, or a process, and you value their thoughts, they will naturally progress to finding solutions.

How refreshing would it be to have your people share with you what they thought about a challenge, and how they would address it? Imagine an encounter where one of your people come to you with, “Hey boss, this process isn’t working they way we would like. I think we could do so much better if we consider these things. And oh, by the way, I recommend we start with this.”

Here’s a diagram of the ladder of leadership that shows the interaction between leader and worker.

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco. Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.

The idea for the level is to give an opportunity for the worker to “level up.” Workers at level 1 say, “Tell me what to do.” Boss responds with level 2 “what do you think, or tell me what you see here.”

In general, the leader plays the card one higher than the worker. So, once you have someone regularly telling you what they think (level 2.1 on the left) about an issue, the next step is to see what they recommend (level 3). A recommendation is a suggestion that comes with an endorsement. It is an indication that someone is taking ownership for what they think. It is an incredible step towards a passionate, creative, proactive, taking initiative team.

There are three steps you can take to encourage your team to provide recommendations.

  • Make it safe for them to do so.
  • Do not force your ideas, and take responsibility for the action.
  • Never make fun of recommendations; no matter how ill-conceived they may seem to you.

For example, let’s say you are running a manufacturing facility with a weekly parts shipment from a vendor. You need these parts to assemble the final product, do your standard quality assurance procedure, and then ship it to your customers. However, this week the parts are late, presenting a problem.

This necessitates a tough choice:

  1. Wait for the parts, skip your QA process (thus risking defects and returns), and ship on time.
  2. Expedite the shipping for a hefty fee in time for your normal QA process and ship on time.

Your production line supervisor comes in and reports this problem. If they are at level 2.1 (“I think”) they might say something like, “I think we’ve solved our quality problems. The last four weeks the inspections haven’t turned up any faulty parts.” At this point, they haven’t made a specific recommendation whether to ship or do the inspection. Remember, as a leader we want to get them from level 2.1 (“I think”) to 3 (“I recommend”).

You might ask them: “Tell me more about…” and select specific components about this problem:

  • “Tell me more about how we resolved the quality problems?”
  • “Tell me more about this batch or parts, what are they used for, how critical would a failure be for the client?”
  • “Tell me more about the client? Do we have a good relationship?”
  • “Tell me more about air freight. How much more does it actually cost?”

And then, you might say, “Given all that you’ve told me, what would you recommend that I do?” If the person has been very reluctant to share their thinking in the past, you might help them feel safe by stating, “This is my decision and I’m responsible for what happens. Still, I’d like some help from you and am interested to know what you think I should do.”

This removes the pressure of the responsibility for the decision at this level. As the worker moves up the ladder, they will feel more of the responsibility, but lower on the ladder as you are trying to generate progress, you might need to help them feel safe.

The point of the conversation is not to artfully guide them to your solution. Create a mental blank space where you are simply curious about how their knowledge and experience drove them to make the recommendation. Who knows? You might actually learn something because they see and know different things than you do! When your decision to action has been reached, take responsibility for the outcome. If your team’s recommendation is the action you take, credit them for success and take responsibility if you don’t achieve the desired outcome. Leaders use “we” for success stories and “I” for failure stories.

Create a mental blank space where you are simply curious about how their knowledge and experience drove them to make the recommendation.

This is a process. Helping to move people up the ladder takes time. Simply listening to someone’s recommendation will reinforce the communication that your people are valued and that their input makes a difference. Acting on someone’s recommendation because it helps your organization demonstrates their value to you and them. Acting on a recommendation that you know is contrary to your organization’s mission or results in placing your people at unnecessary risk is not what we are suggesting.

Balancing Chaos and Frustration

For your teams to bring you recommendations that will benefit the organization, they need to come from a position of competence and clarity. Input from individuals that possess the knowledge skills and abilities to perform in their role (competence) and reflect that they understand the team’s goals and desires (clarity) can be greatly beneficial to your organization. Determining when to act on their recommendation is not with out challenges.

Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco. Illustration by Oscar Ramos Orozco.

The above diagram shows how the overall progression that the ladder of leadership allows us to do with team, gradually giving the team more control, and then increasing competence and clarity.

Notice that the first step is UP not ACROSS. The leader must act first (by nudging the team up the ladder) to give the team a small amount of control to uncover the gaps in competence and clarity. Remember the step is small and calculated to uncover gaps. Taking too big a step will results in chaos and significant errors. On the other hand, developing a highly trained team without giving them control will result in frustrations and departures.


Remember, you can only control yourself. 
And while we can’t command others to move up the ladder, we can create the environment for them to move themselves up the ladder. In the same way, a farmer doesn’t command corn to grow; but creates the environment, with water, sun, soil, where the corn grows naturally.

Part One: Why Motivating Others Starts with Using the Right Language
Part Two: The Counterintuitive Art of Leading by Letting Go
Part Three: How to Source Suggestions from a Reluctant Team Member

More about David Marquet

David is the former commander of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe and author of Turn the Ship Around!, which Fortune Magazine called the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”

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