One part of being of leader is to foster communication with your team to bring that diversity of knowledge and insight out into the open.
Why can this be hard?
People don’t naturally open up if they don’t feel safe. If you don’t actively and purposefully foster the relationships with all levels below you, you may be missing critical information to get the results you are responsible for, which can lead to failure.
To create this climate, sometimes you have to get yourself out of the way. You may have to set aside what you know, forget what you think you’re right about, and forget what you have learned in your training. Instead you create a welcoming space to get new ideas out of the people who look to you for leadership. Then you can put your knowledge to work on that raw material. But first you have to draw it out (without contaminating it).
Why do you want to do this?
Because as technology and business becomes more complex and change becomes more rapid, you can’t know everything. You’re dependent on a lot of people, whether you like it or not.
- Lower-level employees have information about what’s wrong with the organization.
- People with specialized training know details you don’t see.
- New minds bring fresh ideas and see things in new ways.
- Group brainstorming and the synergy of open discussion can open up new solutions that are not evident through individual thinking.
This can go 2 ways – prevention and innovation.
- You can prevent problems and disasters by getting information quickly to make decisions. Consider CEO Disease. This when the leader believes they are doing a great job, and perceives lack of disagreement to mean agreement. Meanwhile the team may fear humiliating the leader by correcting them and so they stay silent, or they may fear other repercussions of speaking up. In one example, co-pilots out of fear, will not tell the pilot they have made a fatal error. The support team in surgery will not correct or contest a surgeon’s actions…again out of fear. This can result in terrible consequences.
- The other direction is that you can foster innovation. You can help refine the raw talent in your people to get to breakthrough thinking, creativity to solve problems, and ingenuity to overcome roadblocks.
Both ways lead to success and results — a key measure of any leader. And another bonus? The team feels engaged and resonant with the leader.
How to do this?
One way to do this is to take what you are observing and thinking, and turn it into a question that is not leading, but that is opening.
A word of caution. The ego can be really tricky. It does not like to get low. It likes its perch above others because it thinks that’s where power, security and safety reside. It’ll try to fool you that you’re being a good listener by guiding you to make statements, cut people off so you can speak, take up time in meetings talking too much, and ask questions that loosely disguise that you already know the answer. You can come across as inauthentic, condescending, pulling rank, or full of ego, and you really irritate people and close them down.
What happens when you get asked a condescending question?
Take a moment and breathe deeply. Recall an experience with someone who is righteous or condescending to you. Go back there in your mind’s eye. How does it feel in your body? Whenever I do this, I think “OMG…please never let me do that to another human being.” But I do. As a parent, or when I’m super frustrated with someone, I do. However, as I become more conscious of this, I can stop doing this as much, or apologize right away.
I think humility is the antidote to condescension.
When I think of the word humble, one of my favourite childhood books, Charlotte’s Web, comes to mind. This word also means something to Edgar H. Schein who wrote about humility in his book: Humble Inquiry: The gentle art of asking instead of telling.
Edgard H. Schein has studied at Stanford and Harvard, and then became a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management in 1956. He says “this book represents a culmination and distillation of my 50 years of work as a social and organizational psychologist” and “the best path to helping people learn is not to tell them anything but to ask the right questions and let them figure it out.” Except that’s not how our school system works. We’re culturally oriented to a “telling and learning” approach. So trying out the gentle art of “asking” could feel very strange and uncomfortable at first.
Edgar Schein goes on to say that “Humble inquiry…is a more general form of asking that builds relationships.” We are dependent on each other at times no matter our rank in the organization, in a family or in a team. By asking, we become okay with saying “I don’t know the answer. I’m dependent on you to find out more information.” And this opens the other person up to voicing their thoughts.
He defines it as:
“Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”
Try it Out:
- Don’t assume the person with the question has asked the right question. Clarify by asking for examples.
- Don’t ask leading questions. Keep language neutral.
- “What did you think of that?” vs. “Didn’t you think that was offensive?”
- “I’m really interested in what you see here. What do you think the problem is?” vs. “You don’t see any problems here, do you?”
- If you’re having a meeting to answer a question, have everyone take a turn at answering the question before back and forth conversation begins. This allows people who lean towards being introverts to have time to speak.
- Ask the why questions, but gently. “ Why is this a problem?”, “Why do you <paraphrase their words>?
- Ask about feeling states. “What feels good about this decision?”, “What’s exciting about doing it this way?”
When you can be genuinely humble (hint: you have to truly care, don’t fake it), and make a welcoming space for others to tell you things, then you have access to more information. Often it’s critical information and it’s just the right information to lead you to the next result you need to succeed as a team. How delicious is that?