I received some great advice the other day from a successful family and businessman. He told me to pick two things I could help resolve that would benefit the organization, and two things that I am passionate about and would be willing to keep bringing up time and time again. He went on to say that anything else that fell outside of these four items I should just be inquisitive about. Rather than rendering my opinion or pursuing a resolution, I should just ask a lot of curious questions and make no decisions or declarative statements.
In his words, questions put people less on the defensive. Whether or not I put someone on the defensive depends on the spirit with which I ask, the tone of my voice, and the body language I use while asking questions. When I was in junior high, I aspired to be a lawyer. I remember in Civics class, we conducted a mock trial. I was the prosecutor and I took great joy in cross examination of the defenses’ witnesses. The tone in which I ask my questions always implied doubt. So as I reflected on the advice this man had given me, I consciously reminded myself that approach would not work if I was going to try and stimulate open dialog.
There never seem to be a shortage of issues, crisis, or complex problems swirling around me in a given work day. My immediate response to this is to aim and fire: fire solutions, recommendations, and direction, solve the problem, and march on. In my mind, it is similar to the Atari Asteroid game I used to play as a kid. (You know, back when graphics were lacking and the joystick was a new thing.) The large black screen would fill with white geometric shapes and I would turn in circles calculating when to fire, how many asteroids could I destroy before they hit me.
Over the course of my career, I have found that a lot of organizations are run this way. With lack of good process, planning and measuring, the entire organization can find itself working hard just to stay alive. Mix that with asking questions like a prosecutor, and you can have an explosive culture filled with distrust. Lack of trust found when operating in survival mode manifests itself in defensiveness, lack of decision making, and too much energy spent covering your… well, you know. There is no way that you can be a successful business if your employees (and you, personally) are spending energy fending off the next attack.
So what we do we do when we find ourselves in this situation? How can we be part of the solution and not add to the problem? I ask myself that 100 times a day — on a good day. All my thinking is provisional (AMTIP); that is, what I think is arranged or existing for the present, possibly to be changed later. When I am asking myself how I can contribute rather than how can I defend off the asteroids, what I find is that I often speak slower and less frequently. My responses and actions become more deliberate and less reactionary. It is even more important if there is a state of confusion for me as a leader to bring a sense of calm. I am unable to do that if I am firing at every perceived threat.
If I think about it for just a moment, the indecision, the complex problems swirling around me are not aimed at me personally, nor are the people (most of the time) intentionally trying to create these situations. They occur for many reasons, too many to get into in this post. Many leaders are valued in organizations because of their ability to remove obstacles. In the end, team success is a leader’s success, so backing off of the idea of fixing everything and focusing on a few things can be difficult for many leaders.
Because of my specific experience and education, I am often asked to comment on topics that surround the industry I am in. Very seldom, however, am I ask about the human side of leadership. No matter your vocation, the scenarios are the same; as leaders, we must be willing to admit we do not have it all figured out. What if we all took the advice that was given to me: pick two things you could help resolve that would benefit the organization, and pick two things that you are passionate about. With everything else, just be inquisitive but let others own the solution. How would that impact your organization? How would it impact your personal life? Do you trust others enough to give this a try? I am going to give it a run and intentionally observe how this impacts those I interact with. I bet I’ll be surprised at how it turns out.