One of the classic mantras of business and personal development is from Steven Covey. His “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is well known but, it seems at times, rarely invoked. The same could be said of the Golden Rule but Covey’s guidance is newer, fresher. It should have more legs and adherence. What’s the problem? An article by Harvard Business Review, Relearning the Art of Asking Questions, suggests our results driven culture may be the issue. I tend to agree.
For some managers, asking questions may feel like a weakness. Some believe that it’s their role to have the answers – all of them. That’s impossible, of course, but it doesn’t change the feeling one can have when asked for an answer by the CEO in a meeting among your peers. A manager who doesn’t verbally pivot well may not deflect professionally and may simply come off looking (more likely, feeling) unprepared.
When it comes to managing direct reports, asking questions can be the most efficient way of solving a problem. It’s certainly the only way of understanding that employee, their motivations, rationale, and triggers.
Often, managers make the mistake of not asking questions because they believe (assume) they have the answer already. This is commonly associated with understanding actions or choices by teammates or employees. Since they assume the other person or people know what they believe they should know, the opportunity to clarify understanding passes. The manager misses the chance to say “let me clarify our plan” and is left with “what happened here”?
The HBR article provides great examples of the four different types of questions and their best use. Here are some additional tips that may help in future situations:
- If asked for information you don’t currently have (and aren’t generally expected to have at your fingertips), you might respond with “I don’t have that info available but I’ll take an action item and get it. Do you want me to email it to you so you have it available at any time or come and see you with it?” This moves you quickly beyond any discomfort of not knowing by “jumping” into action. It then move to clarify how the information should be delivered. I add a benefit to the one that has the most “safety” to it for both parties.
- The five whys strategy can be very effective at helping avoid assumptions about motivations. The first why is usually something like “why would they do this?” This is followed by another “why” for the next four answers until you’ve asked “why” five times. Even if you’re asking it to yourself, which I highly recommend in some cases, this approach drives toward a deep understanding of a root cause. As humans, most of our root causes for anything we do are likely understandable and universal (caring for self/others, wanting more out of life, needing recognition, etc). Once you understand their core reason, you can better discuss the preferred or desired outcome you would like with their desires factored into the equation.
Personally, I’ve built part of my career as a manager on asking the contrarian question. If my company has a process it always uses, I ask why. If they have a market they have never approached, I ask why not. For me, learning to ask questions and operate from within a space of inquisitiveness, creates opportunities to innovate and grow.
Embrace the art of asking questions so you can manage from a place of knowledge, not assumptions.
Some Good Reads: It’s All About You
I’ve often coached people to talk to themselves in the mirror. Stay with me. There are a couple of things at play there. First, it’s the best way I know to keep yourself honest with yourself. There’s no ability to charm myself into believing something that I know isn’t true. Second, our brains aren’t very swift. They hear messages, internally and externally, and analyze what was heard. If I want to convince myself to “gear up” for a challenge, then looking myself in the eye and telling myself “we” can do this is one sure fire way. This is right in line with Seth Godin’s piece called, ‘Pick yourself’ and taking responsibility. While he doesn’t advocate talking to yourself, he does clarify what it means to pick yourself instead of waiting for other to pick you.
The other thing about the brain is how much of a jerk it can be at times. It’s so afraid of failure and being hurt that it’ll paralyze you from doing anything, in the name of keeping you safe. Seth’s second recommendation from me today, Self talk, is all about that voice in your head.
Finally, nothing says “self” like social media and Millennials, right? Maybe. Maybe not. As a Gen-Xer, like my Boomer older siblings, I’ve rolled my eyes at the incessant use of social media by Millennials. As time has passed though, I roll my eyes less. It’s actually pretty impressive to see this generation evolve socially through the use of technology. As an avid sci-fi reader, I can’t help but wonder how things will work as we replace (or augment) thousands of years of social programming with, well, programming. There’s also opportunity in the business space that is a perfect fit for Millennials as discussed in the HBR article, Reassess Millennials’ Social Sharing Habits. I’m a big believer in aligning people with their strengths and this article has given me a number of ideas on how to leverage this generation’s strengths for the benefit of my clients.
People are social animals. The degree of social need varies by person and personality type but it’s rarely absent. Social connections only succeed when we communicate effectively and that, in turn, is best done by asking questions. When we create a space that says “I’m open to learning something I didn’t know and ask that, when it’s my turn, you do the same” we establish a pattern of shared communication that can lead to personal and professional success. It’s that type of clarity, laying out simple, fair ground rules for communicating, that lead to LinkedIn recommendations that say “she’s a great communicator” and “he always listened and was thoughtful”. If those are the kind of recommendation you want to have then seek first to understand.