1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Changing your communication can help you change culture and results. 

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Stop telling and start asking. Instead of saying, “Here is the right way to do it,” ask, “How would you do this?”
  • Shift from giving instruction to sharing your intent. Instead of saying, “Get this done by the end of the day,” say, “Here’s what I’m trying to achieve. How would you suggest we go about that?”

3 Questions to Ask

  • Am I absolving others of their responsibility for outcomes or giving them a pass on thinking itself? 
  • In what ways am I creating a culture of psychological safety in my teams or at home?
  • How can I harness the power of my language to change the culture and results at work or at home?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The problem with the USS Santa Fe (1:27)
  • The remarkable results of Can do + Can think (5:10)
  • The trim tab power of our communication (8:08)
  • The importance of psychological safety (8:42)
  • The primary dysfunction in teams (10:21)
  • Using the disproportionate power of language (13:10)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to become a little wiser every day. 

Have you ever needed to change the results in a situation where there were lots of things you could not change? 

It has long been thought that to completely transform morale and performance, you have to have the power to change everything, but this is wrong. What we know now is that there is a smaller, much more doable way to achieve results. 

Today, I will share an inspirational story, some counterintuitive research and some actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you’ll be able to use language in a way that significantly changes morale and performance. Let’s begin 

And if you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, teach the ideas from this podcast episode to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. 

Let me read you a story from Leadership is Language by David Marquet. His journey took an unexpected detour when the captain of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe abruptly quit and he was suddenly put in command. 

Santa Fe was the laughing stock of the fleet at the time. He joked that they only had two problems, the fleet’s worst morale and its worst performance. 

Each month, the Navy would publish the 12 month reenlistment and retention rate for all 50 or so submarines and inevitably Santa Fe would be at the bottom of the list, not near the bottom, all the way at the bottom by a good margin with 90% of Santa Fe’s crew getting out of the Navy altogether at the end of their time on board.

That was the morale problem. The other problem was bad performance. Santa Fe was getting poor inspection scores across all of its operations from food service to firing torpedoes from navigation to the nuclear power plant. It also had higher than average safety incidents. 

Normally, his proven perform leadership approach would’ve been just what the doctor ordered if he had known the ship. But as it turned out, he had spent the last 12 months preparing to take over a different submarine, so he was driving blind. When he came aboard his new submarine, he started asking questions. 

In the the past, he’d always made a practice of asking questions, but they were more like test questions. He already knew the answers, did they? Now, he was asking questions because he needed to know how the ship worked. This meant he had to admit to his crew that for many of the details, he did not know the answers, and that was scary for him. 

On his first day at sea, the crew and he were sizing each other up. He instinctively conformed to the role of captain that he’d been programmed with. He would give the orders and they would follow them. Then early on he ordered something technically impossible for Santa Fe, second gear on a motor that only had one. 

The order was immediately parroted by an officer, though he knew it made no sense. The sailor ordered to carry it out, just shrugged helplessly and Marquet’s error was revealed to all. 

This was a life-changing moment for him. He’d always known 99 out of every 100 parts of his job. When there was the occasional gap in his decision making, he simply resolved to give better orders in the future. But there on Santa Fe, he felt that he knew only one out of 100 parts of what he needed to do. And if he couldn’t count on his own officers to point out an obvious mistake like that one, he’d end up killing the wrong people, maybe even themselves, and something needed to change. 

All his leadership training up to that point had been about making decisions and getting the team to implement them. He’d never questioned this paradigm until that moment aboard Santa Fe. Improving his decisions simply couldn’t happen fast enough to matter. He needed a different solution entirely. The problem he realized wasn’t that he’d given a bad order. It was that he was giving orders in the first place by making tactical and operational decisions for the team. He was absolving them of their responsibility for outcomes. Moreover, he was giving them a pass on thinking itself. It was a pass he had to revoke if they were going to survive. 

Like many organizations, the USS Santa Fe prided itself on its can-do culture, but can-do is fragile. As long as whatever they’re doing is right, things are fine, but in their take, no prisoners enthusiasm, they can easily propagate errors throughout the organization. What he needed was to match their “can-do” with a zeal for “can think”. 

The officers of Santa Fe, and he made a deal that day. He agreed to never give another order. Instead, he would provide intent, the goal of what he was trying to achieve. They agreed never to wait to be told what to do. Instead, they would provide their intentions to him how they were going to his intent. And that shift was reflected in a simple change of language replacing request permission to with I intend to. They shook hands on it and they went back to work. 

Over the next 12 months, Santa Fe set a record when each and every one of the 33 sailors eligible for reenlistment that following year signed up to stay in the Navy. 

The ship also performed brilliantly in every task the Navy asked of it. Santa Fe received an all-time record inspection score for operating the submarine, all without firing anyone for both performance and morale. Santa Fe had risen from worst to first, and this did not happen because Makay leaned harder on the officers or crew. It happened because he leaned back and invited them to lean into him. As a result, they went from one leader and 134 followers to 135 leaders with a basis for action and thinking. 

What happened over the next 10 years was even more remarkable. The crew of Santa Fe continued to outperform their peers after he left. 10 of the officers from that time were themselves selected to command submarines. Five became squadron commanders or the equivalent, and two so far have been promoted to admiral in the Navy. This track record is to put it mildly extraordinary. 

Marquet continues. “None of this happened because we became more skilled, knowledgeable, or dedicated to the job. We tinkered with some of the Navy regulations, but we could only make minor modifications. This was a system over which we had little control. We couldn’t change our schedule, major assignments, promotions, technical requirements, legal obligations, most procedures and policies or even who was assigned to the ship. What we could control was how we talked to each other, the words we used. Changing the way we communicated, changed the culture, changing the culture transformed our results.” (1)

What I love most about this story from David Marquet is how it shows the trim tab power of our communication. A trim tab is the smaller rudder that moves the rudder that moves a massive ship like Santa Fe. And with all the things they couldn’t change, it would be easy to feel discouraged, but they found the disproportionate power of language. By making it safer to communicate, they were able to learn faster together and achieve significant changes in results. 

His finding is supported by another really thorough piece of research that was done by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard professor. It’s called Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. It’s a seminal article in the field of organizational behavior and management. It explores, of course, the concept of psychological safety and its impact on team learning and effectiveness in the workplace. 

Edmondson argues that teams with high levels of psychological safety where team members feel comfortable taking risks and speaking up without fear of retribution are more likely to engage in learning and problem solving behaviors. The article provides insights and practical recommendations for creating a psychologically safe work environment. 

Now let’s just get clear on how she defines psychological safety. Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. 

This was the results of a study of 51 work teams in a manufacturing company, a measured antecedent process and outcome variables showing that team psychological safety is associated with learning behavior, but team efficacy is not when controlling for team psychological safety. In my words, psychological safety led to team learning, which led to team performance, and that’s just what it is. (2)

The primary dysfunction that I see in teams, and I have seen it now in literally hundreds of organizations of all shapes and sizes and in many countries, is people not feeling safe to speak up so they don’t feel heard and the important insights that perhaps only they have access to are not uncovered. So problems and mistakes are made that were perfectly avoidable and sometimes these of a very serious nature. 

Edgar H. Schein, in his book, Humble Inquiry, the gentle art of asking instead of telling writes about it this way:

“In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents in the frequent but serious nuclear plant accidents in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters and in the British Petroleum Gulf spill, a common finding is that lower ranking employees had information that would’ve prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels or it was ignored or it was overridden.” (3)

And this is not just true for these international disasters. This is true in the day-to-day avoidable disasters in our own teams, in our own companies, in our own families. So often when I talk to the senior leaders, they will say, we want to hear from people. Our door is open. Reach out to me anytime. Send me an email. Call me. Here’s my number. They think they’re open. But if you talk to people in the same organization, in the same business, in the same family, they will share a completely different perspective that they do not feel that it’s really open, that they have been punished or embarrassed or talked down to, somehow suffocated in the past, and they’ve learned their lesson and they’re not interested in sharing what is real below them. So they create all sorts of pretensions, including staying silent when you have something to tell. 

We tend to think of communication sins of commission, that is saying the wrong thing, as being worse than the communication sins of omission, that is not speaking up when we have something important to say. But I certainly think that latter form, especially when there are many people who are making that choice to hold back to not speak up, is at least as big a communication error as the first. 

So what can we do about it? What actionable advice is here? Whether it’s in your business or on your team at work or even at home, you can make the following changes first. Stop telling and start asking. Instead of saying, here is the right way to do it. Ask, how would you do this? 

Shift from giving instruction to sharing your intent. David Marquet, put it this way, “If you want people to think, give them intent, not instruction.” (1)

So instead of saying, get this done by the end of the day, share, here’s what I’m trying to achieve. How would you suggest we go about that? And when you ask questions, and by all means, we need to ask more of them. Ask questions that spark a conversation rather than just an answer. 

Marquet suggests there’s a huge difference between is it safe to launch and how safe is it to launch? My teenage son said something tonight as we were talking about these ideas. He said, we’ve never had to rebel because we’ve never had anything to rebel against. Whenever I felt anything wasn’t right, I’ve always been heard. 

There it is. And I’m not saying it’s always like that. That might just be a kind, rose tinted way of remembering his teenage years. But what he said helped me to clarify an idea, which is this. Not knowing what’s bothering us is what’s bothering us. And when we help people to be able to name what’s going on inside of them, when we help them to feel heard. There are many second order benefits. 

So the next time you need to change the results, when there are lots of things you aren’t allowed to change, change your communication. 

It’s long been thought that to have a total transformation of results, you have to change everything, but that’s just false. What we know now is that changing the conversation changes the culture, which can completely change the results. 

What is one idea you have heard today that caught your attention? Why did this matter so much? Who is one person you can share that idea with within the next 24 to 48 hours? 

If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to the Essentialism Academy. For more information, go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.



  1. L David Marquet (2020). Leadership is language : the hidden power of what you say, and what you don’t. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
  2. Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, [online] 44(2), pp.350–383. doi:https://doi.org/10.2307/2666999.
  3. Schein, E.H. (2013). Humble inquiry : the gentle art of asking instead of telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.