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ASK MORE QUESTIONS, MAKE FEWER DECLARATIONS

Carlotta began the team meeting and told everyone the project missed the last two milestones and the CEO was not happy. Anticipatory tension filled the air. What bad fate was going to befall them? Before their imaginations had time to get carried away Carlotta announced, “This is completely unacceptable and here is what is going to happen.” What followed was an aggressive (sic. unrealistic) plan to right the wrongs. She was firm without raising her voice. She was direct without being hostile. She also didn’t take a breath or let anyone interject. When Sami tried to ask a question he was cut off. The message was clear to the whole team: you have your marching orders. Period.

Across the hall Ramesh made the same announcement to his team. Then he paused. “We don’t need the CEO’s displeasure to tell us that something has gone off the rails. I want to hear from all of you. What are the obstacles to our success and what do we need to do to get back on schedule?” The room burst into boisterous conversation…bordering on chaotic. Within 10 minutes there was a consensus of root cause concerns and the best path forward.

Which team do you think has the highest probability of turning things around? How motivated and productive will the members’ actions be in each case? Which team will feel the greatest sense of urgency and ownership?

I know what you’re going to say. There are moments of crisis when the leader simply has to give clear directions and get everyone moving. It is not a time for discussion. It is time to be decisive and act like a leader! But in your gut you believe that Ramesh’s approach has more merit because it is so inclusive and gains the members’ commitment.

In the real world both methods will get you good outcomes…for this particular crisis. But in the long run asking questions instead of giving orders is more sustainable. The more you set yourself up as the center of the universe imagine what happens when you aren’t available. It’s not that your people aren’t capable of figuring things out without you. It’s that you have trained them to be obedient, wait for your directive and second guess their own good thinking. And be honest here; if you are a Carlotta aren’t you giving mid-year feedback to these very same people to “step up and take initiative”? I’m fairly certain you don’t even hear the mixed message.

Handing out directives is one, ONE, tool in your repertoire. If it is your go-to approach you really need to take a moment to reflect on this. Do you always need to be in control? Do you think you are the only one with the best ideas? Do you enjoy your status as leader a little too much? Or do you feel the entire responsibility rests on your shoulders? If you answered yes to these questions, I’ve got another one for you. When was the last time that you (a competent professional) worked your best and hardest for a boss that always had to be the one in charge? Were you able to learn or grow under this boss? Did you enjoy the job?

I rest my case.

Jean-Paul had spent more time than usual preparing for his meeting with Julian. This was the third conversation about Julian’s mediocre performance overall and quite specifically on his key project. Jean-Paul was dreading the whole thing. Everything he had tried up to this point had not resulted in any progress. He had more frequent check ins, gave more pointed guidance, set him up with a mentor and lightened his work load. It had been six months and Jean-Paul was ready to have the “come to Jesus” conversation.

“Julian, over the past six months I have provided additional time and resources so that you could improve your overall performance. How would you assess your progress?”

Julian hesitated and then said, “I know I haven’t come along as quickly as you would like but I’m really trying hard. I was able to complete phase two of the project and I have been meeting more regularly with my team, as you suggested. So I would say that things are moving in the right direction.”

Jean-Paul resisted his natural urge to pounce at this point. He had made a huge investment and it wasn’t paying off. He was frustrated and pissed off. “Okay. Are you satisfied with this degree of improvement?”

“Not really. But I really like my job and I really want to prove to you that I can do it well.”

“I appreciate that you want to please me but you’re also telling me that you are not meeting your own standards. How is that effecting you?”

“To be honest, I feel like I’m in a hole that I can’t dig out of. I know what I need to do but it just takes me too long and then I get upset with myself and then I dread coming in the next day. When we first talked about this six months ago I was so hopeful. But I have really been struggling.”

Now Jean-Paul felt like he could have the discussion he was hoping for. “I can see that this has been rough on you. I, too, was hopeful. But it seems we are now at a point when we need to assess the situation honestly and come up with a solution that will move us both beyond this frustration. Julian, what do you believe you need to do next?”

What followed was a brutally honest back and forth about Julian’s strengths and weaknesses and his own thoughts about where he could be most valuable…or not. They both agreed that he did not show promise (or desire) as a manager of others or being the lead on a major initiative. But he did have a highly specialized skill set that was sorely needed. Jean-Paul had entered the meeting with the intent to fire Julian but he left it with a plan to move him into an individual contributor role. They would try this for three months and see if it worked. If not, Julian had agreed to leave on his own accord.

Can you imagine tucking away all your anger and your inclination to summarily dismiss this guy in favor of asking him what he thought should happen? (In case you’re thinking that this would never happen in reality…this is a true story several times over.)

Here’s the power of asking questions: it forces others to step up. When you ask questions the other person has to express an opinion, offer an idea/solution, take the lead. In short, the more you draw out of someone, the more he will see himself as the center of the universe…the one who has to make the commitment and take action. When your people are co-creators of their destiny they will work like crazy to make it happen. Everybody wins.

So as much as you may enjoy all the control and being the center of gravity it is not a winning strategy when used too frequently. Ask more questions, put the responsibility for answers on others. And then I can teach all of you to be a therapist and answer others’ question with a question of your own! What do YOU think you should do?

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