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Leaders, Hormones and Trust

A recent article by Sarah Amani, Senior Program Manager at Oxford Academic Health Science Network, beautifully distils a view on what makes for a good leader.

Sarah says; After surviving the milestone of working 10 years in the NHS, I thought I would reflect back on one of the most pivotal factors that has influenced my overall experience: Leadership. I approached the selection of this topic with some caution – I am sure most people are probably sick to death of trendy topics like leadership and the various psychosocial theories that have come out over the years. So I thought I would try to approach the topic from a slightly different angle by looking at the chemistry of leadership (bear with me here).

How Leaders are Made

There has always been a debate about whether good leaders are born or made. In a recent video by Simon Sinek titled ‘Why Leaders Eat Last’, he makes a compelling argument that good leaders are made, not born. In a compelling 45 minute video, he lays out some of the biology underpinning great leadership:

  1. A leader is nothing to do with rank.
  2. Leadership is a choice.
  3. Anyone who puts their self interest aside to protect the people next to them and improve things around them is a leader.
  4. It is therefore important to note that not all people in authority are leaders. Some are there entirely to look out for no one else but themselves. This is not leadership.

So what is it that drives good leadership? Well apparently its more scientific that I thought. Bear with me as I try to explain:

Happy Dopamine Hormone

Dopamine - Be Happy

This is the reward chemical which makes us feel good from crossing off tasks as achievements. We feel good when we cross off set goals and plans because our brains release dopamine. This mechanism is used in business and industry to motivate performance via targets. It feels good to get 100% achievement against targets and the buzz from this achievement makes us want to do it again and again to get that same buzz.

However, dopamine comes with a warning as it can be highly addictive. This would explain why the banking crisis occurred – like with all addictions the rewards for achieving targets overshadowed everything else. Bankers were willing to sacrifice everything and everyone to get that next dopamine rush from reaching targets. I can’t help but wonder what implications this has on the use of targets in our healthcare system.

Serotonin - Winning Feels Good

Moving on to another chemical and one which is coined THE leadership chemical: Serotonin is said to be responsible for feelings of pride and status. It is why public recognition makes us feel good. All those awards and public acknowledgements of achievement release Serotonin. This explains why an e-mail with a certificate attachment saying ‘Well Done’ doesn’t have quite the same effect as standing in front of your loved ones, peers and team as you are given an award.

The interesting thing about how Serotonin works in this situation is that at the same time that you get a rush of that Serotonin and fill up with confidence, your peers/boss/team also get a rush of that Serotonin and share your sense of pride for being part of that achievement. This strengthens connections, raises confidence and status but also sets into motion a cycle where we want to repeat that feeling of pride and achievement. So we seek other opportunities to get other awards – to get another rush of Serotonin. This might explain the multi award winning streaks we see with some individuals and teams…

However, the expectations laid out by the actions of Serotonin can also lead to a loss of confidence and trust in our leaders. As demonstrated above, Serotonin strengthens the social contract between a leader and their team. We have no issues with our leaders getting the bigger office or more pay. In fact, the promise of a repeat of another Serotonin rush from a team win, means that most followers voluntarily give their leaders the best of whats on offer and some special treatment too. This is not on the basis of teams believing the leader is necessarily better than the group, but on the premise that the team believes that the leader is there to shield them from danger. Serotonin (and the confidence boost it gives) drives good leaders to run towards danger in order to protect the team. The group invariably grows to believe that they are all in it together and are looking out for each other with the leader at the helm.

Fight or Flight

Saber: Fight or Flight

However, when this social contract is broken – when the person we believe to be our leader sacrifices our safety for their own gain or we feel they have failed to protect us, then this trust is lost. The result of this is a new focus on self preservation. With the trust broken, individuals feel unsafe, they stop going that extra mile to get another Serotonin boost and connections weaken. At the same time, another chemical kicks in and initiates the fight or flight response.

That other chemical is Cortisol – the stress chemical which has preserved our species from the stone age till now and probably for centuries to come. Simon makes the important point that humans have not outlived dinosaurs or the saber tooth tiger because we are stronger or smarter but because we protected each other by working in groups and knew when to fight and when to run. Cortisol is great if there is an imminent threat as it helps us run or fight the danger. As part of our response to danger, Cortisol shuts down systems that are unnecessary for fighting or running e.g. our immune system and the system responsible for growth. This enables our body to focus on fighting or running. Once the danger passes, our Cortisol levels should subside.

However, in organisations and teams where the trust is broken and staff feel unprotected, levels of stress and Cortisol remain high. This means that our capacity for growth and immunity remain low. The result is what we see in teams with people who can’t seem to take anything in or learn anything new. This goes hand in hand with plummeting performance and a rise in sickness. It is not by coincidence that this happens, it is an indication that the environment has become too consistently stressful with no reprieve and no chance for Serotonin or indeed Dopamine to rebalance the trend.

Doing good boosts morale

Doing Good & Physical Connection Boosts Morale

But fear not, this gloomy set of circumstance can be turned around with good leadership involving yet another chemical. Oxytocin is the chemical of love. It is a feel good hormone resulting from human physical contact and connection. It makes us feel safe, valued and loved. We can get a rush of oxytocin from touch – something that explains the feeling of trust we get when we shake hands on a decision and get nervous if someone refuses to shake hands, or from simply sitting together and feeling like we are near someone who gets us.

We can also get a dose of oxytocin from doing good deeds. However, trying to game the system by simply giving money to charity or doing something that takes little time and effort doesn’t work. We don’t get the same rush of oxytocin if we try to game this system and it doesn’t feel as good. This is because the money we give is replaceable. But if we spend time – something we will never get back – then we and the person on the receiving end of that time and effort get that warm good feeling as Oxytocin is released.

The above applies to all organisations – simply telling a member of staff that you will pay money to solve a problem doesn’t make them feel valued. Responding to a call of help or distress with an e-mail saying ‘I care’ doesn’t make the recipient feel valued. However, picking up the phone or walking to that member of staff to ask ‘How can I help you?’ makes them feel valued. This is why I am a firm believer that walking the floor can never be underestimated – it puts the leader in and amongst the team and releases oxytocin – making both the leader and the team feel good. As it turns out, over time, the build-up of Oxytocin in our body protects against Dopamine addiction and improves immunity too so it’s a win-win in my humble opinion.


So what is the above trying to tell us about leadership? The messages I personally take away are:

  • Leadership is a personal choice made by those who want to improve things around them for the benefit of others -regardless of rank or position;
  • Teams and leaders do not excel in a system which relies solely on targets to drive improvement;
  • Serotonin is the Leadership chemical which primes us to repeat success by using public acknowledgement of achievements to share the sense of pride and build stronger bonds with our teams;
  • Leadership is rewarding but very challenging. Good leaders know that the perks come with many sacrifices. Those who put self-interest before the team and fail to protect their teams from harm lose trust and invariably promote an environment of stress and fear.
  • To drive performance and excellence, leaders need to remember oxytocin and be present with their teams. Take that extra effort to pick up the phone or walk the floor to build/re-build trust and promote the feelings of safety so that people can re-focus on doing their work.

So a big thank you to Sarah for sharing this insight. Interesting in the opening personal perspective and thought-provoking in the use of chemical drivers as a core medium. 

The Dark Side of Leadership Reputation

Within the film industry, George Lucas had a great reputation, built partly on his success with Star Wars. As the story goes, wisely he outsourced the original Star Wars sequels to a capable group of screenwriters and directors. Despite the massive success of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, ego and reputation meant he then opted to fly solo as a writer, director, and producer of the prequel trilogy. The resulting films proved that the director had absolutely no understanding of what audiences wanted from the franchise and by neglecting to reflect on what audiences loved about the franchise, Lucas created three boring films that barely qualified as action figure commercials nor made any return on investment.

There are strange, but often repeated outcomes that appear when the board of an organization appoints a leader with a known reputation, who fundamentally isn't up for the challenge itself, but rather approaches their role with total selfishness.

Reputation is a mercurial aspect of perceived successful individuals. Such is the nature of reputation it prompts a discussion and blog in itself... for another time. Suffice to say, in such instances as this it rests on delivering an outcome, often change, that a board considers the holder is able to bring to their own challenge 'at home'. Of course this presupposes the conditions both internal and external match theirs at that time and place, which of course can, and never will, be the same. Yet here they are appointed to the role.

So what are the outcomes of such actions? Firstly, single-minded, selfish individuals are only fuelled in their excess through each and every move, appointment and often increased reward package. Their power knows no bounds. So, to their actions and the long term effects: Change is brought about and while short term leading to perceived success, long term a change takes place in the soul. Soul of individuals, mores and culture.

Short term EBITDA, profit, growth and value appear enhanced, yet underneath a deterioration is happening. Deterioration is the ability of the organization to continually deliver cost savings, increased individual and group productivity and most of all limited creativity.

While these outcomes do not show up in the near horizon of 3-5 year plans, this does not seem to matter either to the incumbent leader nor the board. The inevitable results: Change in the leader. They move on to another challenge, fuelled by their own perceived self-worth and in many instances a knowledge that it is the 'right time' to move on (perhaps before being found out).

For a moment though let us consider what happens inside the organization. A common conversation revolves around 'sitting it out, change is inevitable and while this is the current way, hopefully the soul will prevail'. Of course this is seldom the outcome and instead another change takes place as those that have ability and resolve chose to find employment that offers values and beliefs similar to their own. Others fight to survive by adopting the prevailing behaviours in this 'new order' that can provide them short term success, but actually, in long term, affects their own sense of balance and fulfilment. In terms of delivery, whether achieving targets, results and sustainable creativity and innovation, sadly efforts, campaigns and initiatives fail. Not immediately, but rather they end up being sub-optimal and limited in their sustainability as mentioned. This is mainly as a result of staff not really being committed heart and soul to what the leader really wants, as demonstrated by his or her actions and selfish intent.

What can be done? In truth, this conundrum is best resolved through a combination of decisions and actions, namely;

Board members define what they want from a new CEO. This definition has to include;

  • A previous track record in dealing with challenges similar to their own
  • A clear set of behavioural skills considered important to maintain morale, mores and norms that enable the business to succeed then and now
  • Insight and ability to diagnose and act upon the few, yet critical blocks to improved performance and success going forward.
  • A robust and thorough selection process that takes time to really explore the fundamental motives and strategic intent underlying applicants desire to become the CEO.

Notwithstanding all the above, it is fair to say that these core insights not only apply to the appointment of CEOs, but equally to Directors and leaders throughout organisations. It is simply that the scale of risk and potential long term damage to the organization is greater the higher 'up the food chain' one goes.

Managing your Chimp!

Recently I've been sharing with a number of successful individuals I coach, the whole concept of "managing your chimp". This all comes from a book called 'The Chimp Paradox' by Dr Steve Peters. Dr Peters works in elite sport and has been the resident psychiatrist with the British Cycling team since 2001 and also the SKY ProCycling team. Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton, Craig Bellamy and Ronnie O'Sullivan have all spoken publicly about how Dr Peters' unique Chimp Model has helped improve their performance. He has also been involved in 12 other Olympic sports and has recently been hired by Brendan Rogers at Liverpool FC!

His theory is that everyone has two personalities - a human and a chimp. You the human thinks logically and works with facts and truth. You the chimp thinks emotionally and uses impressions and feelings. The Chimp is an emotional machine that will hijack you of you allow it to. It is not good or bad ; it is a Chimp. It can be your best friend or your worst enemy - this is the Chimp Paradox.

This book is well worth reading if you find yourself wondering why things are happening that you would like to change. It makes you think about how you react to situations.

Here is one excerpt that some of you might be able to identify with - it made me think for sure

In the middle of the night

Imagine that you have gone to sleep with something on your mind that is really concerning you. You wake up in the night and your mind starts racing. At this point, the Human is fast asleep and the Chimp is in total control. Therefore your thinking is irrational and emotional. The Chimp will think and see things catastrophically and worry you for however long you are "awake". Eventually you will fall back to sleep and come round again in the morning. You now get out of bed and wonder why you were thinking so emotionally during the night.

The answer is simple : during the night your brain changes its functioning and the human no longer gives any check to the chimp. In the morning the human is now rational and puts things back into perspective. Nothing seems as bad once you return to human functioning. There is a simple lesson to learn and a golden rule to follow.

The simple lesson is that, unless you are a night shift worker, between the hours of 11pm and 7am you are in Chimp mode with emotional and irrational thinking. You rarely think with perspective and this will only return after 7 in the morning (I accept this isn't a good thing for someone like me who get s up at 5.30am, but I am working on it, or at least not doing too much focused thinking!). The golden rule therefore is :
If you wake during the night, any thoughts and feelings you might have are from your Chimp and are very often disturbing, catastrophic and lacking in perspective. In the morning you are likely to regret engaging with these thoughts and feelings because you will see things differently.

Try to develop an autopilot that says I am not prepared to take any thinking seriously during night-time hours when the Chimp is in charge.

One key point I take from this short extract is that it is worth thinking about if you ever find yourself worrying or stressing about something and then a few weeks later you wonder why on earth you ever allowed yourself to get so worked up over something relatively unimportant.

When working with others – perhaps share this knowledge while encouraging them not to stress too much outside of working hours, Let's face it, you need them to be fully switched on and positive at work, worrying late at night when often it's not rational will diminish their personal productivity.

'The Chimp Paradox' is indeed well worth reading for those of you interested in how the mind works, and for those who prefer audio, the best bit is Steve Peters is British (i.e. unlike many audio books it's not coming with an American accent!).

Leading Across Boundaries

Over the past months I have spend a fair amount of time listening hard and reflecting for colleagues on the common dilemma of how to lead across boundaries. Boundaries not just in the global sense of between countries, but equally at a comparatively local level between professional teams, services and internal 'silos' which all of us wish didn't exist.

I found and read this short article below adapted from Boundary Spanning Leadership by Christopher Ernst & Donna Chrobot-Mason, that summarises so many of the issues and proposes a number of possible tactics (boundary spanning practices) to mitigate the problems. I hope you find the content useful.

In a twist to current thinking about our global, interconnected society, we believe that the world is indeed boundless and flat, but that human relationships are still bounded and confined by powerful limits.

In a flat world, bridging boundaries between groups is the new and critical work of leadership.

Since Thomas Friedman's 2005 bestseller, The World Is Flat, was first published, the world of business has felt anything but flat — the landscape wrinkled by the global financial crisis, climate change, the energy crisis and political and religious unrest.

Why do things feel bumpier than ever? Of course there's no single answer, but we believe that the connections in our physical world have now outstripped the connections in our relational world. What is happening is that advances in Internet and collaboration technologies have dismantled many of the boundaries that once prevented people from working together. Yet as physical boundaries have been removed, the boundaries that still exist in human relationships remain, in sharp and jagged relief.

The boundaries that matter most today are psychological and emotional rather than organizational and structural. The divides and rifts in our businesses, communities, regions and countries are largely about identity: our core values, how we define ourselves and our beliefs concerning how we fit within our social world.

There is no quick fix or technical solution to solve problems rooted in the deeper dynamics of human relationships: trust, respect, common purpose, safety, belonging and uniqueness.

In navigating today's unfamiliar terrain, we are all challenged to think and act beyond the current borders that confine us, our teams and our organizations as a whole. We must gain a new understanding of vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic and geographic boundaries and seek new solutions at the nexus where groups collide, intersect and link.

What does boundary spanning leadership look like in practice?

It can be seen when a cross-functional team with a history of poor performance becomes an innovation engine.

It is a key that unlocks the effectiveness of a virtual team by drawing on the talent and perspectives of its diverse members.

It is about creating time and space for each of us to open up to change, strengthen interdependence, transform the current state and reinvent what is possible.

Boundary Spanning Practices

Boundary spanning leadership involves six practices that help us to 1) manage boundaries, 2) forge common ground and 3) discover new frontiers.

Manage boundaries.

The first step to spanning boundaries is, ironically, to create or strengthen them. You must be able to see group boundaries clearly before you can bridge them. Two practices – buffering and reflecting – enable you to manage the boundaries between groups. The practice of buffering involves defining boundaries to create safety between groups. Buffers monitor and protect the flow of information and resources across boundaries. Once groups have achieved a state of safety between them, the next practice, reflecting, involves understanding boundaries to foster respect. Reflectors represent distinct perspectives and facilitate knowledge exchange across groups.

Forge common ground.

Common ground represents what is universal and shared. To forge common ground is to bring groups together to achieve a larger purpose. Two boundary spanning practices — connecting and mobilizing — enable you to tap into the human need to be part of something larger than yourself. The practice of connectingmobilizing, involves reframing boundaries to develop community and craft common purpose.

Discover new frontiers.

A frontier is a place of emergent possibility. It represents the outer limits, the location where the most advanced and breakthrough thinking resides. The final two boundary spanning practices — weaving and transforming — enable you to discover new frontiers where similarities and differences meet. Weaving occurs when boundaries are interlaced in new ways to advance intergroup interdependence. Weavers draw out and integrate group differences within a larger whole. Once groups have achieved a state of interdependence, the final practice, transforming, is about reinvention. Transformers bring multiple groups together in new directions to realize emergent possibilities.

For me the common theme so many managers and leaders face is recognising and dealing with the challenge of 'human relationships still being bounded and confined by powerful limits'. While it is easy to diagnose the issue, the solutions are far more difficult.

However, I am often reminded that what it takes are 'adult to adult' conversations demonstrating a clear understanding of the 'others' needs while maintaining the ultimate goal of the business / service need first.

The founding principles of these conversations are trust, respect, common purpose, safety, belonging and uniqueness. Remembering these while leading across boundaries does enhance the likelihood of success in leadership. I have certainly found it works with and for clients I coach and mentor.

What makes a great place to work?

The question of "What makes a great place to work?" seems to perennially do the rounds. Maybe because in finding the answer we have the solution to effective organisations.

The trouble is, if it were that simple, we would all apply the 'answer' and everything would be... you get my point!

However, having just posted a comment in answer to the question I thought it might be useful to share some simple answers, with the caveat that while it may be easy to say these things, the delivery in real life is far more complex.

So, to some possible answer for the questions;

The findings from millions of survey questions analysed by Gallup on the subject of 'What makes a great place to work?" found it broke down into four main themes, namely;

Basic needs
Managerial support
Individual growth.
From this Gallup went on to devise 'Q12′ a simple diagnostic tool(s) that allows for insight into your team through to organisations as teams.
Each theme has detailed explanations, but fundamentally these themes do look similar to Maslow's (some things never change). For more insight into the Q12 work, there are a selection of publications of which, "12: The elements of great managing" was the first!

More recent work showed the key issues to be;

Sustainability (physical)
Security (emotional)
Self expression (mental)
I will say more in future posts, as this is a gentle starter for 10 (not 12!).

The key thing to note though is that all these themes fundamentally relate to 'people' issues and we should not be surprised.

So in answer to the question, a great place to work is as a result of the people within it.

The Three Gaps Between Goals and Greatness

Are you setting goals that you can’t quite obtain? Why is this? If the goals are realistic, then where are the preventative gaps in your organisation? How can you aim to fill these in and execute greatness?

Ugboajah, P.R. (n.d)The Three Gaps Between Goals and Greatness. Change this.

Appreciation in the Workplace Wins

While the bottom line in leadership is often about the 'simple' issue of delivering results, the reality will always remain that it is only through the goodwill, commitment and critically engagement of your colleague and reports that will make this happen.

It seems to me there is a worrying trend going on amongst many people I work with that talks about morale and engagement not being what it was.

While we can put some of this down to a number of issues, namely; tough economic times, time pressures to deliver results and little diminution of stakeholder expectation, this really masks a more fundamental basic human need that is missing, which is individuals feeling a sense of appreciation for what they do.

After working on this very issue in four different organisations over the past six months, I can honestly say the situation is retrievable. Our practical approach gets right back to the basics and involves everyone – including the most cynical!

Perhaps to shed some light on what might be going on and what needs to be addressed I found this recent article Margy Bresslour which, while written with an American bias the issues are truly the same for all of us wherever we lead, I hope you find interesting and informative as well as it adds to your own deliberations on the matter given your role:

Wouldn't it be great if we loved our work?

I hope you derive satisfaction and reward from your work, but research shows that's not the norm. Let's walk you through some of the current research on the typical American workplace and employee dissatisfaction, and then look at how we can improve.

Employees in 2013: Checked out

A recent Gallup study of the American workplace found that among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point they cost their companies money. The same study also concludes that "7 in 10 American workers are 'not engaged' or 'actively disengaged' in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive".

Two other studies point to similar findings. According to the U.S. Department of Labour, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they "do not feel appreciated." In a number of polls, 65% of Americans report receiving no recognition during the past year at their work.
A study of over 1,700 employees conducted in 2012 by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that more than half of all employees intended to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.

Valuing Employees: The path forward

These statistics are bleak and present a sad commentary about the modern workplace. However, there is hope when it comes to building strong organizational cultures that support and retain employees. Other studies show when employees feel appreciated and valued they:

  • increase their individual productivity;
  • increase engagement among their colleagues;
  • are more likely to stay with their organization;
  • receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and
  • have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.
Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

We all want to be appreciated for who we are and the value we offer in the workplace. Studies show that employee engagement is directly linked to how leaders and managers interact with employees. Gallup found that managers who focus on employees' strengths eliminate active disengagement and double the number of workers who are engaged.

A worldwide study by Towers Watson concluded that "the single highest determinant for engagement is whether or not employees feel that their manager is genuinely interested in their well being".

Appreciation also leads to positive changes in attitude, relationships and viewpoints

In his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels concludes that "recognition and appreciation are the most powerful motivators of improved performance". He states, "Building a successful business means most of all bringing out the best in people – only people-oriented positive reinforcement in the form of appreciation, recognition and gratitude can do that."
In addition to improved work product results, appreciation also leads to positive changes in attitude, relationships and viewpoints, which help build a strong organizational culture.

When you work for an organization that doesn't care about you (or doesn't demonstrate that it does), it's common to question your self-worth, including your strengths and contributions. You may start to ask, "Do I matter?" This attitude tends to follow you outside of work. In contrast, when people notice and acknowledge the good qualities and characteristics you have, you begin to see them too.

There's even more good news to share: people who give appreciation benefit as well. There is evidence that sharing positive messages with others promotes a feeling of happiness in the person delivering the message.  The results are simple and intuitive. There's a tremendous amount to gain by appreciating those around you in the workplace. Wouldn't you enjoy working with productive and fully engaged employees who are proud of and speak highly of the organization where they work?

Finally, if you're really interested in knowing more around the whole subject and some insights into the areas to work on, I have got hold of a copy of the Gallup Survey mentioned above and attached it for your information.

To conclude, while the bottom line in leadership is often about the 'simple' issue of delivering results, the reality will always remain that it is only through the goodwill, commitment and critically engagement of your colleague and reports that will make this happen. On a personal level, as I mentioned earlier, I know that my tried, tested & validated in practice approaches to getting behind these recommendations and making them real, delivering enhanced engagement and productivity do show how teams and organisations can make great strides in meeting these basic and necessary goal. I suppose it's having done it now four times over the last six months and refined the approach that leads me to feel so confident about the outcomes.

Increase Your Team's Curiosity


We all like to think we are good at asking the right questions and I am sure most of us are. Occasionally it’s worth being reminded or indeed reminding others how this all works for the good of our own productivity and indeed creativity.


This short article is really worth sharing with your teams for I am sure there is bound to be someone who could benefit from reflecting on the suggestions outlined below (from article by Roger Schwarz).  It's all about asking the right question from the standpoint of curiosity, sharing the goal and coming across as non-judgemental.  Use the prompts within about how to ask questions and think more before your next meeting with staff what questions you might ask. Alternatively pausing just before asking a questions if the situation is an immediate situation.

Does your team have a difficult time making decisions that everyone supports? If so, you may be suffering from a lack of curiosity.

Try this: Next time you’re in a team meeting, count the number of times you make a statement and the number of times you ask a question. If you’re like most team leaders, you’ll find that you make many more statements than ask questions and some of the questions you ask aren’t really questions.

Research  shows that in effective teams, members share their own views and ask others their views. By combining transparency and curiosity, teams keep the discussion focused, get all the information on the table, learn why members have different views, and create solutions that take into account all team members’ perspectives. As a result these teams have stronger performance and better working relationships.

When leaders learn that they aren’t asking question, they often overcompensate by asking a lot of questions and withholding their own views. This leaves team members feeling interrogated rather than engaged.

Not all questions are created equal. To develop an effective team, it’s not enough to ask questions. You have to be genuinely curious. When you are genuinely curious, you ask questions to learn what others are thinking. When you aren’t genuinely curious, you ask questions to make a point: rhetorical questions.

See if you can tell which of the following questions are genuine and which are rhetorical:

1.     “You don’t really think your solution will work, do you?”

2.     “If we implemented my proposal, what problems, if any, would it create in your divisions?”

3.     “Why do you think I asked you to follow up yesterday?”

Questions 1 and 3 are rhetorical: they don’t really ask for an answer but implicitly state the speaker’s own views or ask you to guess what the speaker is thinking. Asking rhetorical questions demonstrates a lack of both curiosity and transparency.

Rhetorical questions can feel good to ask. They are a way to score some quick — and often clever — verbal points. But rhetorical questions undermine your team’s working relationships and reduce its ability to make high-quality decisions. Rhetorical questions enable you to ask others to be accountable without being transparent about your own views, leading team members to feel insulted, defensive, or discounted. As a result, team members trust you less, withdraw from the discussion, and withhold relevant information that the team needs to make good decisions.

curious teams cat

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether what you are about to ask is a genuine question (like question 2 above.) If you answer yes to any of the following questions, the question you’re about to ask isn’t genuine.

  • Do I already know the answer to my question?
  • Am I asking the question to see if people will give the right (preferred) answer?
  • Am I asking the question to make a point?

Another way to figure out if you’re about to ask a rhetorical question is to give yourself what I call the “You Idiot” test. Here’s how it works:

Privately say to yourself the question you plan to ask. For example, during your team meeting your direct reports have just told you that they will miss the final deadline and incur additional costs on a key project, the very outcomes you were trying hard to avoid. Feeling frustrated, you’re tempted to respond, “Why do you think I asked you to finish the work before the end of this fiscal year?”

At the end of your private question, add the words “you idiot.” Now you’re saying to yourself, “Why do you think I asked you to finish the work before the end of this fiscal year, you idiots?”
If the question still sounds natural with “you idiots” at its end, don’t ask it. It’s really a statement — a pointed rhetorical question.

Change the question to a transparent statement that shares your view, including your reasoning and your feelings. Then add a genuine question that helps you learn more about the situation. In this case you might say, “That really bothers me because it already puts next year’s budget at risk. Help me understand; what happened to make project expenses spill over into next fiscal year?”

Shifting from rhetorical to genuine questions may be more difficult than it seems. That’s because the questions you ask and the statements you make are driven by your mindset: the set of core values and assumptions that unconsciously guide your behaviour.

If you’re operating fromunilateral control mindset, rhetorical questions enable you to control your team, by telling them (implicitly) what you think and not allowing them to influence you.

If you’re operating from a mutual learning mindset, you are both curious and transparent. You are curious: you see each team member as having a different piece of the puzzle you all need to solve, so you ask genuine questions to elicit information and ideas. You are transparent: you express your point of view, clearly and explicitly — not disguised in a rhetorical question. By being transparent about your own concerns and curious about your team members’ experiences and perspectives, you improve working relationships, develop more creative solutions, and achieve more accountability and commitment to decisions from all team members.

So check your questions: are you asking rhetorical ones?

Please do let me know if you have any simple or successful means of achieving sustainable decision making agreed by all.

An insight into what distraction is and the problems we are facing in an attention crisis. Terminal distraction is increasing, what steps are you taking to combat mental obesity?  How do we keep motivated when distractions are everywhere?

Over the last several years, the problem of attention has migrated right into the center of our cultural attention. We hunt it in neurology labs, lament its decline on op-ed pages, fetishize it in grassroots quality-of-life movements, diagnose its absence in more and more of our children every year, cultivate it in yoga class twice a week, harness it as the engine of self-help empires, and pump it up to superhuman levels with drugs originally intended to treat Alzheimer’s and narcolepsy. Everyone still pays some form of attention all the time, of course—it’s basically impossible for humans not to—but the currency in which we pay it, and the goods we get in exchange, have changed dramatically. Read More [external link]

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