Best Practices in HR
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  February 6, 2018

Stop Answering, Start Asking

The clients I’m fortunate enough to work with have a few things in common. One of those being that they rose to their levels of success by being people who have answers; someone who can help solve complex problems, and understand how to take the knowledge they have and put it into action. And for many of them, that strength can become a glaring weakness. Here is what I mean.

When we are recognized for a strength, our tendency is to play to that strength; sometimes again and again. It feels good and gives us confidence to do so. So, if you are someone who tends to be good at solving problems, and you’ve earned a reputation for doing just that, you may rely on that ability often. On the surface that may not seem to be a problem. After all, you get paid to come up with novel solutions to the challenges you and your organization face.

“Just knowing you don’t have the answers is a recipe for humility, openness, acceptance, forgiveness, and an eagerness to learn – and those are all good things.” – Dick Van Dyke

And sometimes we become addicted to the feeling of being the go-to person. It feels good to help others, to solve problems, to lead the team through some impasse. A key question to ask yourself is whether the intelligence in your organization (or on your project team) flows in only one direction. In other words, does the intelligence flow only one way – from you to others? If you consider yourself a leader, then your job – actually your obligation – is to help those on your team to grow and extract more of their intelligence and genius for the good of the organization.

It can be incredibly disheartening for those on your team to come to work day after day and not be able to use all of their intelligence and ability. And when we set ourselves up as the answer man, that is exactly what they can experience.

“The person who figures out how to harness the collective genius of his or her organization is going to blow the competition away.” – Walter Wriston

How would you know if that is happening? What are the warning signs? One thing you’ll notice is that you will begin to feel as though your team isn’t performing at their best; they don’t seem to be giving maximum effort. It isn’t because they don’t want to, however. They simply feel that it doesn’t matter because you’ll either correct what they’re doing, or just give instructions that take all of the thinking out of it.

Something else you’ll notice is that your people tend to come to you when they’re facing a dilemma and ask for your assistance. They will take very little time to search for answers. They’re not lazy – it’s simply human nature for them to let you continue to be the problem-solver. After all, that’s what you’ve trained them to do.

You’ll also notice that you’re tired… maybe even overwhelmed. You are the source for all the answers in your organization or on your team. That is a heavy burden, certainly. You spend so much of your time tending to all manner of issues that you find very little time to get your own work done. It’s an unsustainable situation.

And there’s hope. Here are three simple things you can do to extract yourself from being the know-it-all leader and begin to cultivate more of the innate genius that already exists in your organization. After all, you hired these folks. An intelligent leader like you would never hire incompetent people! It’s time to get out of the way and let them do what you hired them to do.

First and foremost, stop telling people what to do or giving them your answers immediately, and instead ask them for their input. When faced with a challenging situation, they may come to you for assistance, and rather than solving the problem for them, instead ask, “I see the challenge. What are your thoughts on how we should approach this?” Now, that is just the start. Once you’ve asked the question, you have to actually wait for the answer.

“I have always been much better at asking questions than knowing what the answers were.” – Bill James

Along with that, you need to resist the temptation to tell them everything that may be wrong with their answer. If you hear something that makes you take pause, ask another question. “I hear what you’re suggesting. Now tell me as you consider this, what are the possible challenges with this approach? What are the potential unwanted outcomes?” Get them to examine their own thinking. Give them the space to explore.

Second, become a better listener. In meetings, in the hallways and informal situations, start to listen to what’s being said by your folks. Hear the intelligence that exists within your team that up until now you may have overlooked. Sometimes when we think we already know the answers, we can turn off our listening and end up missing what might be a new and novel approach to the challenge that we haven’t considered.

“The biggest piece of advice I have is – listen. Don’t jump to the answer or what you think the answer is. The more you listen, the more you learn.” – Tim Ryan

Third, and most important, stop worrying about how smart you look. Talk less; ask more. If you want to engage your people and grow the collective intelligence of your organization, the best way to do that is by being intentional. Give people stretch assignments that help them grow. Ask open-ended questions that invite people to dig deeper into their own answers. Give them permission to challenge the status quo. Sure, be there to help when they get in over their heads. But until then, focus more on being a source of support rather than the oracle.

Who knows? You just might discover a level of intelligence that you never knew was there. And in the process, you’ll find yourself more available to focus on your own work rather than carrying the burden of the entire team or organization.