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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.

Summary

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. 

Poor leadership = poor adaption to changes

Changes conjure up many feelings and emotions - excitement, anticipation and happiness, but change can often herald reservation, concern, even fear.

While many leaders extol the benefits of change, not everyone shares that enthusiasm.

A client outlined the challenge he saw in taking on his new role as CEO. This challenge revolved around the level of fear he sensed throughout his new organisation. Phrases like "I can see the fear in their eyes" and "deep reservations about the future ahead" were quoted. There will be many reasons for these behaviours a nd this leader faced them as his prime challenge. Without commitment to the journey of necessary change throughout the organisation, he was "on a hiding to nothing".

Poor leadership can give rise to fear. Leaders define, affect and influence the culture of an organisation way beyond their own imagination. Some have no idea of the level of influence their behaviour has on others, not only on their direct reports, but through them on the whole organisation.

Resistance to change can also be due to;

  • Vested interests and personal fiefdoms which work hard to prevent change.
  • Potential organisational blindness to how the outside world really works.
  • Or, team spirit lost in transition.

Every organisation must evolve, adapt and remain sensitive to changes in its industry and others which can undermine what was once a stable and sustainable market. Often leaders read the situation correctly, but then act to bring about change in a way that destroys the very foundations that brought success to the organisation and would have served it well into the future, if only channelled correctly.
So, back to my client. What could he have done? In this instance it was a case of acknowledgement. Acknowledgement of what has passed, how his predecessor in attempting to do the right thing – did wrong. Not wrong in realising that change was necessary, but rather in misunderstanding how to deliver change.

History plays a part in defining the behaviours of an organisation "the way we do things around here", and some recognised capability for change. The very success built into the DNA of the organisation that brought it to the current position, that same DNA would if handled correctly, deliver future success in the 'brave new world'. Listening to those who have seen the journey to this point and asking them the right questions such as "What have you learnt when facing this or that challenge in the past"? and "Which solutions worked, which didn't and why was this the case"? Getting under the skin of the what, why and how the organisation responds to the new, what constitutes the resilience amongst the teams and capability to adapt, change and renew - this is key.

Having listened, questioned and understood, it is as vital to acknowledge that history - the strength that has helped so far - and open the dialogue about what the future holds, what part each person thinks they can play and what do they see as the evolution necessary to meet the future.

None of this should detract from the crucial role any leader plays in doing his or her own strategic thinking, market analysis and all the other critical 'outward looking' actions.  The real talent comes in performing the merger of listening and acknowledging within, with diagnosing and refining the challenges and opportunities without. This results in change for good, lessening the fear.

Fundamental to overcoming resistance to change is the building of trust. We can help with this. Contact – peter.buckley@buckley-partnership.co.uk

Now here is a real challenge, how to lead when actually you don't have line authority, you don't necessarily have attendees who share the same priorities and goals.

So I thought a very personal view of leadership within collaborative partnerships, focused on leadership in times of dramatic change and from the perspective of complexity theory. Thanks also to Professor Ralph Stacey for his thought provoking insights into this arena which have informed my thinking.

Having 'consulted' for many years in a plethora of organisations from commercial through to public service and charity on areas from leadership, through team working and subsequently high performance cultures, I am left with some common threads that seem to always be present in those that work most effectively. These include;

What actually are organisations or indeed Partnerships?

Perhaps it's better to look at them as a 'system' constructed by its members through the interaction of its members. So to be a bit off-the-wall, an organization is just a thought, not a thing. An imaginary construct of what is happening. Fundamentally it works because on the whole people come to work each day to do tasks that, should they agree locally it is right to do, and this extends out throughout the whole group, it all works as a whole rather than by 'divine direction' from the top.

If leaders do decide what we do and set the vision, then why are we here now? Would they have designed the current position for any one of their organisations? NO.

So, the organisation emerges. The effective partnership emerges.

Ultimately, if individuals interact positively and agree what they do is right, this affects others near them and the overall thing creates patterns that appear coherent and effective – known therefore as emergence – though one has to accept somewhat unpredictable.

Ethics and the critical role it plays in leadership success.

One final facet to include of course is the issue of ethics – not so much ethics of the whole organisation, but the ethics of each person in the individual decisions at the most local of levels (1-2-1) through the individual actions we take.

Let's face it, one point I have talked about at the NPIA on this theme, is that ethics form the basis of trust, and trust is only gained through actions (I see what you do – so you mean it, but only believe you when you repeat it consistently over time).

So the big question is, what do you do if you know this or understand this construct and want to influence and effect good leadership?

Leadership therefore in our context is NOT a 'heroic figure', but more all about the local interactions between human beings.

Too many people are pre-occupied with the 'game' and not thinking how to decide what is best, so are engaged in 'politics, persuasion and negotiation' rather than what actually the whole thing is aiming to achieve. So for effective leadership we should stop thinking of pre-designed solutions or ultimate master plans, but more how to influence the 'group' in the 'right direction'.

Excellent leadership (which is in my mind a social phenomenon arising through the interaction between people) is where others recognise you lead and you recognise their roles. Leadership is therefore co-created.

Leaders therefore must:

  1. Interact locally (regularly)
  2. Communicate to large numbers of people. However remember the interpretation is how it is taken up by local interactions. Pronouncements are but gestures and the effect once again is through local responses – we can't control how it is interpreted.
  3. Understand how it works locally which ultimately is by 'conversations'. Conversations within groups and between individuals.
  4. Realise they are leaders, only if they are sensitive to the situation and able to articulate what is emerging, which helps the group move forward and on.

Leaders therefore have to:

  1. Widen and deepen communication to help the group move forward
  2. Try and explore what to do in change (options)
  3. Stimulate ordinary conversations in times of anxiety – why? Because if we don't, people jump to conclusions as they are looking for safety (or to meet their own agenda).
  4. Live longer with being anxious so they keep the conversations going longer so a solution arises that is far better than jumping to quick fixes and mundane solutions no one in the end believes really work.
  5. Be self-reflective to realise they should not be idealised as this can lead to ultimate denigration – let's face it, Barak Obama realises this when he says he is 'not the Messiah' or has all the answers.
  6. Help others take the next step.

So, I agree with those that say selection and training of leaders of partnerships is essential. That same training should open leaders' minds to all these insights and help them understand how to manage this uncertainty, while finding the way forward for themselves and for the group as a whole. Should you wish to know more, or even put something in place for your leaders please do not hesitate to drop me a line.

Following on from my earlier post in March around leadership in collaborative working with external partners, I just read the following extract from HBS written by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer looking at the same challenges with collaboration within a company.

Riddle: What ubiquitous structure of contemporary organizations around the world makes for the best of times at work — and the worst of times, too? Answer: Collaboration.

We have written here about our project collecting daily work dairies from over 200 people to understand the effect of everyday events inside organizations on employee inner work life — emotions, perceptions, and motivations. When we analyzed the events that occurred on the very best days people wrote about, and contrasted those events with the very worst days, a peculiar thing happened.

Collaboration — working with others on a given day — didn't function like other work events. Nearly all of the events on the best days were exact opposites of events on the worst days — like making progress versus suffering setbacks. The good days had a much higher percentage of "good" events, like progress, than "bad" events, like setbacks; the bad days were the reverse. But, oddly, collaboration was prominent on both best days and worst days at work. In fact, we found that, although collaboration happened on 53% of the very best days, it also happened on 43% of the very worst days. Interestingly, average days were somewhat less likely to involve collaboration (38%). What does this mean? Is working with other people both a really good thing, and a really bad thing?

Actually, yes. It all depends. Collaboration across departments or units of the same company will likely be a good thing only if managers set up the conditions for what Morten Hansen — citing Procter & Gamble's collaborative innovation as a prime example — calls "disciplined collaboration." This includes getting buy-in toward a common goal. In the companies we studied, when cross-unit collaboration went terribly wrong, it was usually because the groups were working at cross-purposes. In fact, we saw conditions that actually pitted departments against one another. Listen to the words of a finance manager in a large consumer products company, whose efforts to improve his business team's profit margins were repeatedly undercut by people in the sales department:

"I learned that pricing for one of our key accounts has already been confirmed to the customer, without any prior approval or review. [...] It turns out that the pricing offered is [so low that] we will be losing money on this account."

We saw this sort of thing happening repeatedly to the business teams of this company, because salespeople were rewarded only on total revenue, while the business teams were judged on profit. The General Manager and his team seemed not to realize that these disparate goals were a fundamental problem — both for the division's performance and for employee inner work life.

Collaboration within a team can be a double-edged sword, too. As Richard Hackman has described, leading teams effectively requires setting the right team structure and then coaching the team to develop good processes. In one high-tech company, leaders got both pieces wrong: an R&D team's structure was fuzzy because goals and roles were never clearly defined, and no one intervened as teammates began squabbling over who was doing what and why. The VP of R&D had blundered in setting up the team to develop a radically new printer-scanner: He failed to define clear project goals, and he let two senior mechanical engineers each believe that they were going to lead the mechanical design of the product. From Day 1, the two tussled over their divergent visions. To make matters worse, the team leader avoided the building conflict between the two. After a while, the electrical engineers on the team found it impossible to collaborate with any of the mechanical engineers. Progress ground to a halt, crippling innovation.

To maximize the upside and minimize the downside of collaboration, exemplary leaders not only explicitly encourage collaboration, but also ensure clear goals and roles up front, anticipate potential conflict, and intervene when it arises. At the best company we studied, one director made a point of publicly recognizing collaborative achievements within teams and across units, modeling collaboration himself, and connecting people across the organization. Collaboration flourished. Another director wanted to enlist help from a key rival in another division, but understood that the rival might feel threatened. Recognizing the potential for friction, he first brainstormed with his team different ways of approaching and working with the "competing" colleague. The cross-division partnership worked out, and the project exceeded expectations.

In this company, where leaders understood and managed the positive and negative potential of collaboration, norms of cooperation, coordination, and mutual respect operated at all levels, down to small teams. As a result, innovation steamed ahead — and people across the company had many more good days than bad days.

So much of the content rings true and so many lessons for all of us working collaboratively. I have found explicitly addressing these issues through facilitation genuinely enhances not just the work, but also the time to execution and positive and sustainable results.

How do we plan and prepare for the future? Does project management play a role in your organisation? This simple brochure gives you a break down of how to put project management into action and what you stand to gain.

Roffey Park (nd) Project Management: A journey worth taking. Social Systems Innovation.



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.

Leave your problems on the tree

It’s very important to keep your balance and protect your home life, whatever it is.

"The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tyre made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.

On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.

Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree," he replied." I know I can't help having troubles on the job, but one thing's for sure, troubles don't belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again."

He paused. "Funny thing is," he smiled, "when I come out in the morning to pick 'em up, there ain't nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before."

How might a team leader use this - 
Whatever ever else you do, remember to share insights like this so your colleagues and staff know you understand the pressures of work/life balance and how important it is to separate the stress at work from those you love at home. Being present for them is good for you and the whole family.

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.

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