Eric M. Bailey of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group: “Lead by example and acknowledge mistakes that you make”

…To correct all of this think about the culture that you want to have for your organization, and then identify what would need to be present for people to behave in that way. If you say that you want a culture of “accountability” because you want people to be honest and reliable, then create an […]

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…To correct all of this think about the culture that you want to have for your organization, and then identify what would need to be present for people to behave in that way. If you say that you want a culture of “accountability” because you want people to be honest and reliable, then create an environment where people do not assume that lying for safety is a better choice than being candid about errors. Find ways to coach people who make mistakes in such a way that they can actually improve. Lead by example and acknowledge mistakes that you make.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric M. Bailey.

Eric M. Bailey is the bestselling author of The Cure for Stupidity and president of Bailey Strategic Innovation Group, one of the fastest-growing human communication consulting firms in the United States. Eric has a unique set of life experiences that includes earning a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Organizational Development from Saint Louis University, helping NFL Pro-Bowler Larry Fitzgerald pet a rhinoceros, doing barrel rolls in an F-16, and chatting with LL Cool J on the campus of Harvard University. Eric believes that no matter what life throws at you, there’s either a lesson to be learned or a story to be told.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Absolutely, my pleasure. Thank you for having me. My path to organizational psychology and leadership development doesn’t quite make logical sense. In less than a decade, I went from working at the Zoo to Banking to Marketing to owning a management consulting firm. However random my path seems, there has been a common theme throughout my life. From the time I was a little kid, I always found myself in the middle of disagreements, trying to help both sides understand the other and to feel better. Whether it was my parents arguing, or my cousins, I always felt an optimistic compulsion to help folks see that things could be better. Now, I own a business where, in practice, we help organizations stand up strategic plans, leadership development programs, diversity & inclusion initiatives, but deeper down, we’re really helping people find meaningful ways to feel better about uncomfortable situations so that they can move to resolution. We teach folks the tools to stop debating and arguing and then help them resolve long-standing issues.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I’m fortunate enough to have a TON of amazing stories, but the “Most Interesting” story has to be from 2018. I was invited by the General of Luke Air Force Base to fly in an F-16 fighter jet. Yes, it was as scary and exciting as you’re imagining! To be clear, I was in the back seat, so there was an actual Air Force pilot in the jet with me.

The mission of our company is to Serve Those Who Serve, and that has led us to several opportunities to work with the United States Air Force. We have done several training sessions for the top leadership as well as with their Mission Support Group.

One November, I received an email from my main contact at Luke and it appeared to be a long chain of emails that I was just being looped into. As I scrolled down to the initial email, I saw that Brigadier General Leonard was scheduling me for a flight in a fighter jet; I needed a physical exam, flight suit fitting, and egress (ejection) training. EJECTION TRAINING!

When the day of my flight came, I was a bundle of nerves because Demon, my pilot let me know that we approved for an “unrestricted climb.” I had NO IDEA what that meant, but he was excited about it, so I was excited too! I asked him, “Hey Demon, what’s an ‘unrestricted climb’?” — He said, “You’ll see, it’s fun!”

After double-checking my sick pouch was securely strapped to my right thigh, I took a few photos with Demon, my wife, and my son, and then climbed into the jet. My wife, Jamie had taken our oldest son out of school that day. I think that one choice made me a superhero in his eyes forever. I waved to both of them as the canopy closed.

My heart was pounding in my chest, in my ears, and well, just about everywhere as we rolled to preflight to make sure that we were good to go and fueled up. Then, we rolled to the end of the runway. “You ready?” I hear Demon ask in the speakers in my helmet. “Hell Yeah!” I exclaim. Our jet eases forward and I hear the reminder “head back” — I’m not sure if Demon said that to me, or it was the 18 warnings I received from other pilots, “Make sure you have your head all of the way back against the headrest during take-off… ’cause when he hits the afterburners…”

My body gets heavier against the seat back… “Afterburners!” Demon says jubilantly in my headset. He called out every 50 mph as we rocketed down the runway. “150 miles per hour… 200 miles per hour… 250 miles per hour…” we went airborne, but not very high, we must have been only 10 feet above the runway, with a lot of runway to go. “300… 350… 400… 450” and then Demon showed me what “unrestricted climb” means. He pulled up on the stick and we went practically vertical until we were thousands of feet above the earth! Instead of leveling off like a normal thrill ride, we roll to the left until we were upside down and the city was ABOVE me! As I looked up and took in the city below, I thought to myself, “What is this life!?”

I’m still not sure whether or not Demon was trying to make me lose my lunch, but if so, he wasn’t successful… well, not yet anyway. The experience was unbelievable and at one point in our 45-minute flight, Demon gave me the stick and let me control the jet. I turned left, I turned right, I went up, and I went down, and then after brief verbal instruction, I performed several barrel rolls over the beautiful Sonoran desert. When he was satisfied with my efforts, or maybe he was bored, Demon piloted a sharp turn to the left and we pulled 7Gs, which means our bodies experienced seven times the effects of gravity. I employed the Hook Maneuver that I was taught in training. Since my body was experiencing several times the normal gravitational forces, all of my blood naturally wanted to retreat from the higher places and go to the lower places. When enough blood left my brain, I would have passed out. The Hook Maneuver (specialized muscle contraction and breathing) allowed me to remain alert and lucid. “I didn’t pass out at 7Gs!” is a badge of honor that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Then Demon dove our jet almost straight down and we accelerated to over 761 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound.

This experience was as life-changing as it was unbelievable. Not only did I gain an overwhelming appreciation for the skill, preparation, training, intelligence, and sense of duty embodied by the men and women in the armed forces, but I also became acutely aware of the fact that, in all of the struggles in my life, cannot comprehend the actuality of being in a warzone. I truly appreciate the humanity of those that are braver than I.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a very important project right now. It may be some of the most important work that we do. As you’re aware, we’re in a period of time that is arguably the most divided our country has been in our lifetimes. Across myriad issues, it seems like people are gravitating to the poles and demonizing those at the other end. The trend is not new, it has been building for decades, but right now it is as drastic as it has been in our lifetimes.

Employees and bosses all over the country are reporting uncomfortable situations at work because these divisions are creeping their way into offices and interpersonal relationships. While HR departments are trying to figure out how to handle these situations, there is a surprising dearth of tools to understand and handle the root issue. We’re working on a program/workshop that will help restore sanity, build empathy, and remind everyone that we are more similar than we are different.

This project, called The Predictable Brain Science of Division takes a body of psychology and neuroscience research and boils it down to relatable experiences in normal English so that people can zoom out of the arguments and debates and see what’s really going on. It’s a powerful process and will go a long way to improving workplace effectiveness and bolstering much-needed relationships.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

The number of unhappy employees is, unfortunately, growing for a number of reasons. First and foremost, even though we spend so much time “connecting” with one another through our digital devices, employees report that they are more isolated and lonely than ever before. And this was reported PRIOR to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once you add in that people are working differently, either working from home, or physically separated, or furloughed, or laid off, this isolation is exacerbated.

Secondly, workers in the United States are relatively terrible about setting and protecting boundaries. As Tens of thousands of people started working from home as a result of the pandemic, we saw significant increases in time that people were working. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study of 3 million workers, that the average workday extended nearly 1 hour per day compared to the pre-pandemic workday. Think about that, because there is no physical distinction between work and home, we are dedicating 20 more hours per month to working instead of connecting with our friends, families, hobbies, books, etc.

Tangential to our issue with boundaries is the lack of vacations. Every country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the 36 wealthiest countries) has national standards for vacations. Every single employee in France is granted 30 days of paid vacation per year, not including holidays. The United States is the only country in the OECD without guaranteed vacations for all workers. Interestingly, even for those who DO get paid vacation, much of that vacation time goes unused. According to a 2019 study from the US Travel Association, the average full-time worker in our country is granted just over 20 days of vacation per year from their employer but only uses only 17. As a country, we are leaving 768,000,000 vacation days unused every single year.

There is ample research about how vacations help reset our decision-making abilities as well as provide us time to work through some of the more complex issues. Vacation helps us process strong emotions. And ironically, according to research, the main reason people don’t take vacations is that they feel a strong sense of guilt. This turns into a downward emotional spiral where our negative emotions build up without a sufficient outlet, which makes us feel that we’re in a worse position to actually take a vacation, which makes us feel worse.

The fourth reason so many folks are unhappy at work is because of the effects of judgment and fear. Or in many cases, fear of judgment. For example, many organizations claim that they have a “culture of accountability.” They even write “accountability” into their stated values. The problem is that in practice accountability has moved away from its original meaning, “a willingness to accept responsibility or accountability for one’s actions” to a newer, slightly different meaning, blame, or fault. The phrase “Someone needs to be held accountable for this’’ is utter significantly more than the phrase, “I will be accountable for this.” Typically when organizations have a culture of blame or fault, employees are often in fear of making a mistake, or worse, getting caught making a mistake. It is incredibly difficult to be happy when you are fearful of your decisions or projects being judged as bad or wrong.

Finally, communication is consistently one of the biggest complaints for both employees as well as managers in organizations around the country. In fact, an poll of thousands of employees identified that four of the top five answers to “What is the worst part about your job?” were all about poor communication. If you’re at work, and your boss’ poor communication provides unclear direction to you, when (not if) you make a mistake, your boss’ poor communication will probably “hold you accountable” (read: blame). Because of poor communication, employees are feeling a diminished sense of being understood, a diminished sense of unique value, and a diminished sense of belonging.

All of these alone would be enough to make an employee feel less happy at work. But when you combine them all, as we have been doing over the past several years, it becomes clear that employee happiness should be a key indicator for leaders across the country.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Research from indicates that nearly two-thirds of employees waste at least five hours per workweek on non-work related activities. To state this differently, if you have an organization with 1,000 employees, you can assume that you have around 30,000 hours of wasted productivity — If you were to get that time back, it would be the same as hiring seven additional full-time employees.

Study respondents report myriad reasons for why they waste so much time, and all of the reasons come back to employee fulfillment and happiness. If you have an unhappy workforce, you will notice productivity slip. What’s worse, is that your organization may already have an unproductive workforce, but have normalized to the suboptimal results. Which can have a major impact on the bottom line of the organization

An unhappy workforce leads to reduced psychological wellbeing in that it tends to encourage stasis. Our brains crave progress. This is why so many lottery winners quit their jobs and then fall into depression. Once they lose their purpose, nothing seems to fit any longer. When folks are happy at work, they tend to look for ways to make things better, seeking out projects and volunteering for opportunities.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

First and foremost, most managers don’t know what their organizational culture actually is. They have some official documents like Mission, Vision, Values statements, but don’t actually know the culture of the organization or the individual cultures of departments or working groups. To improve the culture, you have to truly understand what the culture is.

I once worked with a CEO who took time out of his schedule every single month in perpetuity to visit every single team around the organization. He would sit in the call center, he would go on maintenance ride alongs, he would sit with graphic designers. He wanted to know exactly what employees thought and what they were dealing with. He wanted to know the real culture. After a few rounds, employees began to look forward to his visits. His visits became a part of the culture of teamwork.

Second, identify any gaps between the actual culture of the organization and the organizational culture you aspire to create. This step requires a bit of humility, acknowledging gaps in actual vs. desired culture begins with an admission that the culture isn’t there yet. That isn’t necessarily a condemnation of your leadership, but rather it’s an opportunity to explore the various opportunities for improvement.

I once was on the organizational development leadership team of a rapidly growing healthcare firm and I discovered an alarming trend in voluntary turnover. That is HR speak for people who leave the organization voluntarily (quit). Using the industry as a benchmark, the rate at which people were quitting our company was more than double what it should have been. I looked deeper into the numbers and realized that we had a culture problem. When I brought this information to the executive team, I was met with a swift rebuke laced with the odor of finality, “Your numbers are probably wrong.”

Third, model behaviors. This step is said so frequently, it is almost cliche. The problem is that so many leaders across organizations do not follow this basic, yet impactful model of leadership. We learn from a very early age that behaviors matter more than words do. If you watch children who are similar to their parents, it’s the behaviors that highlight the similarities. Those behaviors are rarely explicitly taught, but rather observed. If you want a culture that is kind and understanding, and then show kindness and understanding at every opportunity, folks will pay attention to that. “Do as I say, not as I do.” is a proverb that grants the speaker license for hypocrisy. Model the behaviors you want to see in the organization.

Fourth, create an environment to succeed. This step is more about context than content. If you have ever tried to learn a new language as an adult, you will fully understand the importance of this step. As adults in the 21st century, we often turn to language apps like DuoLingo for a few minutes, and then, as soon as we’re done, we put down our phones and the world around us is speaking English. The context is English, and when the context is English, it is significantly harder to learn another language. Now, let’s say that you were assigned to start up a new division in Chile. You would spend your time learning the language on your phone, and then as soon as you put your phone down, the world around you is in Spanish. Your context is Spanish. In an environment like that, learning a language is not only an intellectual exercise but rather a complete experience. Similarly, we must create an environment in which our desired organizational culture can thrive. If we want a culture of timeliness and there are clocks scattered around the office all displaying different times, computers display slightly different times, or cell phones on different carriers display different times, the context is not ripe for developing that culture.

Finally, be consistent — since cultures are defined by the people in the culture, there is a surprising amount of pressure on people who do not fit the overarching culture. For example, if your organization or team has a culture of dishonesty and self-preservation, people who are honest will find themselves exasperated every time they bump into evidence of the culture. They will be looking around, mouth agape, saying, “is anyone else seeing this?!” Each time the culture is reinforced, the honest person will feel less and less like they belong. Eventually, they will leave the organization. On the other hand, if you have a well-reinforced organizational culture of honesty, people who are dishonest will feel uncomfortable. Will Durant in paraphrasing Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

We as humans have a natural tendency to progress forward and then slide backward, returning to the ways things have always been done. So changing the organizational culture is not about a big initial push, it is about generating enough momentum such that the culture reinforces itself.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We have a problem with the way that we think about organizational culture: we think of it as a box to check. We have this idea that words that we write on official documents like mission statements, vision statements, or values lists define our organizational culture. Unfortunately, that’s not accurate. Organizational culture is defined as the shared standards, attitudes, and beliefs of the people in the culture. So, culture is actually defined by who people are and what people do, not by proclamations. For example, many organizations say that they have a “culture of accountability” which sounds like a powerful statement representing an organization filled with people that get things done. The problem with that is that within the past decade or so “accountability” has become synonymous with “blame.” If you think about how the word is most frequently used, “someone is going to be held accountable for…” which translates to, “we are going to find out who to blame for this.” The true culture in this situation is not about accountability or building trust into the future, but rather about blame and pointing fingers retroactively. This culture often goes hand-in-hand with a culture of fear. Where the people in the organization are afraid to make mistakes and therefore do not stray too far outside of the realm of what has always been done.

To correct all of this think about the culture that you want to have for your organization, and then identify what would need to be present for people to behave in that way. If you say that you want a culture of “accountability” because you want people to be honest and reliable, then create an environment where people do not assume that lying for safety is a better choice than being candid about errors. Find ways to coach people who make mistakes in such a way that they can actually improve. Lead by example and acknowledge mistakes that you make.

As a society, we have a tremendous opportunity to practice humility. Say, “I don’t know” if we don’t know something. Say, “I’m sorry” if we cause someone upset. We are often so focused on appearing perfect and infallible, that we miss the opportunity to understand what the culture truly is in our organizations.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My leadership style is based on trust and respect. I lean heavily on the strengths of those I work with and let them know that I appreciate those strengths. I was once preparing an organizational culture workshop with an organization out of town with a new member of the group and she let me know that she had a brilliant idea to use visuals to detect the existing culture. Now I had never seen this exercise before, and we didn’t have the luxury of previewing it because we were traveling in from different states. But I trusted her and respected her experience. The session was unbelievable and the outcome was beyond my expectations.

This trusting leadership style won’t work 100% of the time (of course), but what I find is that if I trust someone, and they fall short of expectations, then I have the opportunity to exhibit true human respect. Let them know specifically what fell short and what can be improved upon next time. More often than not, leaders exercise their anger when things don’t go as planned. They want to make sure that the person feels bad for their error or mistake. Here’s the thing… they already know they made a mistake, and they already feel bad. Our reinforcing that in an emotional reaction does little to set the stage for future success.

Another time I was in a similar situation with a new associate and things didn’t go as planned. In fact, I almost lost a client relationship because of it. I deeply value my client partners and was alarmed that a client would react so negatively to a new team member. When it came time for us to debrief, I knew that she felt awful, and realized that my role at that point was not of a critic, but rather someone to listen to what her interpretations and questions were. That unexpected respect tends to continually return to me in the most surprising moments.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have collected a wonderful group of mentors, coaches, and advisors over my life, but when it comes to the successes that our business has achieved, no person is more responsible for that than my partner in life, Jamie Bailey. I have been called a “visionary leader,” which I believe is the secret code for “bold if not reckless.” And across my entire career, there is evidence of my many missteps because of my seemingly infinite ideas. I tend to live in the realm of the creatively disorganized. Enter Jamie. 
She is the yin to my yang and finds ways to balance and challenge me when my creativity gets the best of me. She is organized in ways that I didn’t think were possible, and makes detailed plans so many steps ahead of that it would impress a chess grandmaster. And at the same time, she has great trust in my unique way of seeing the world and actively encourages it. It’s a beautiful partnership.

When we were first starting the business, Jamie’s practical nature wouldn’t let her see the possibility of what our business could eventually look like because it was so steeped in ambiguous possibility. But she trusted me anyway. She trusted me because I could see it so clearly. In fact, for the first few months of starting the business, she would forward me job applications to fill out “just in case.” Even as she didn’t see the full vision, she was able to create systems and provide organization and structure where there was none. She was able to encourage and guide me so that I didn’t get in my own way.

Now that our business is established we operate as a thriving organism. While some say that she is the lifeblood of the company, I say that she is the infinitely vast network of vessels that allow for the lifeblood to flow rapidly and effectively.

There is no Bailey Strategic Innovation Group without Jamie Bailey.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have been very fortunate throughout my life and my career that I’ve had the opportunity to understand the struggle of people who are in service positions. Often they are not glamorous positions but can be extremely impactful on countless lives. I was the beneficiary of kindness and support of civil servants and non-profit organizations when I was young and was living through difficult family situations. I will never know the names of those who gave their time to help us, but I do see the impact. I have a thriving marriage of 13 years and counting, we have three children who are thriving in school and extracurriculars, and we are running a rapidly-growing consulting business. Statistically speaking I should not be in this position, but here I am. Because of the women and men who helped me as a child, I am thriving and so is the next generation behind me. Because of this, I reserve the bulk of my company’s time to serve those who serve. We work with housing organizations, child-abuse organizations, municipalities, first responders, etc. We have to date, provided over 500,000 dollars in discounted or free services to service-based organizations, providing them the same high-quality service we provide to our Fortune 100 clients. One of my favorite comments we’ve received so far comes from a commander in a large-city police department. He said, “I wish I would have had this workshop 40 years ago. It would have changed my entire career, (chuckling) and probably saved my marriage”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from my Uncle Joshua Thomas Bailey by way of my cousin Troy. Uncle Tommy said, “The first thing you must do when you find yourself in a hole, is stop digging.”

I think that it would be irresponsible and inaccurate to say that I’ve never made a mistake. I have. We all have. When we make mistakes, the most important thing to do is recognize as quickly and as completely as possible, that a mistake has been made. Unfortunately, I have on multiple occasions, pretended that a mistake wasn’t a mistake and so I kept digging. I think that our social-media-curated museum of life leads us to believe that we need to be perfect all of the time, always having the answer, always responding accurately, etc. So we project the image of infallibility. The problem is that when we do make mistakes, and we do, we tend to pretend that they are not mistakes. We shift our weight in our chairs and say that we meant for that to happen, or project that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. The problem in all of this is that this failure of vulnerability is akin to jumping full-weight on the shovel and digging down further. I’ve found that even if things are uncomfortable, failure exists less in the everyday mistakes and more in the lack of acknowledgment and subsequent lack of corrective action of those mistakes.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As a nation and as a world, we are living through a period of unprecedented, but not unexpected divisiveness. We are moving farther and farther away from center, and in the process, we are judging the character of people we know or meet, based on how much or how little we agree on certain issues. We are even making assumptions of what people believe based on where they live, what kind of car they drive, and who they voted for. So quickly, we assume that we know all that there is to know about someone and make relationship-ending judgments far too frequently. The concept of “unfriending” someone is happening so often that the word “unfriend” is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

If I could start a movement, it would be around building a society in which folks engage in dialogue with folks with the purpose of understanding them. Not necessarily agreeing with their conclusions or their outcomes, but rather, validating their experiences and emotions. I am working to start a movement of folks that will be the first to apologize if they’ve offended someone even without meaning to. We are practicing the technique of stopping a debate in its tracks by recognizing that by us trying to win, we’re trying to make the other side a loser. So rather than continuing to push, we stop making our point and start asking questions. The movement is called, “Radical Curiosity” and while I’m not advocating for it to be employed 100% of the time, this movement can drastically improve the probability of civil conversations leading to increased human connectedness.

This movement of Radical Curiosity will lead to respectful dialogue with people who disagree, I imagine congress restoring productivity, because they care more about the overall outcomes, than they do about scoring political points.

What would the world look like if we all recognized that everyone we’ve ever argued with, ever debated with, ever fought with, believed to their core that they are a good, rational, and logical person? Because they do. What if we asked ourselves in the throes of a debate, “why would a good, rational, and logical person be arguing this point?” Imagine if they gave you the same grace. Step into a space of Radical Curiosity and imagine how much better our collective experience of life could be.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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