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The Question in Leadership

A lot of my culture change projects involve me watching leaders in action, either preparing for change,  working through the change with other leaders, or auctioning change with their teams. In doing so I have noted that, for many leaders, there is a default approach that underpins their leadership style.

When asked, ‘how are we going to tackle this with your team?’ The answer is predominantly built on the ‘Tell premise’.

When watching their approach with teams the approach is also built on the ‘Tell premise’

Most managers think that they are there to Tell people what they need to know, how it’s going to be, what the answer is, how to solve the problem etc etc.

This is no surprise, when you consider that most managers are promoted on the basis of their proven expertise, their track record in delivery and their experience. You know what to do, you know what has happened before and your track record has shown you that your instincts are good. On top of that, you are the manager and isn’t that what you are there for?

The problem with building a leadership style based on this approach is a) when you don’t know the answer and b) when people need to engage and align for themselves in order to get a result. True Culture change is full of the former and built on the latter.

On a day to day basis, managers will meet situations where, if they were honest, they would not know the answer with certainty. They may have an idea. They may have one answer. They could have a preferred approach. But unless the situation is governed by legal statute or hard and fast policy then many situations occur where there is more than one answer. Indeed legal colleagues will often tell me that in the case of the former there is still more than one answer.

So there is actually no need for managers to operate with the ‘Tell premise’. In fact if they didn’t do so, they would find culture change so much easier. I think that they would find so many things easier.

As a manager and then as an executive coach I found that life got a whole lot easier if I just asked a question.

Think about it. I didn’t need to be an expert in physics to ask a question of a physicist. I didn’t need a PhD in Economics to ask a question of an economist. As a mechanical engineer as IT and control engineering was burgeoning, I was able to manage multi-discipline teams just by asking a question. In asking a question you can then just listen to the answer and tell if its given with confidence or whether its a guess. You can listen to see if the answer shows that there is information missing and you can supply it. You can listen to see if the answer is a risky strategy and then perhaps you offer an alternative.

If you tell there is only one outcome. You’ve told.

The ‘Tell premise’ requires expertise in the topic that you are talking about. The ‘questioning approach’ just requires an ability to ask questions. If you think about it, what should be the most natural? As children we spend all our life asking questions, before we have enough knowledge to tell anyone anything.

Asking questions is part of our wiring. Telling requires knowledge.

And when it comes to culture change, are people going to come along to this new place because you tell them or because they convince themselves? And there lies the beauty of a ‘questioning approach’. By asking people ‘how could you benefit?’, ‘what’s in this for you?’, ‘How would this make your job easier?’, ‘what would your customer see?, they begin to convince themselves.

So if the questioning approach has such a lot going for it why do you think more leaders don’t opt for it?

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