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Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask

dumb questions smart leaders askBack in 2005, I read an article in FORTUNE (June 25, 2005) by Geoffrey Colvin. It was entitled, “The Wisdom of Dumb Questions.” The title caught my attention. In the article, Mr. Colvin surmised that “dumb questions lead to smart decisions…” and that a dumb question can “…cut to the heart of the matter, posing a blunt challenge to someone or something–an authority, a policy, the established order. It can make people uncomfortable.”

That made sense to me and I started thinking: What dumb questions should I be asking that might lead me to smarter leadership decisions? I thought you might be interested in some of the “dumb” questions I now suggest proactive leaders consider asking with great regularity.

Dumb Questions Smart Leaders Ask

Dumb Question #1: How am I doing?

This question was made popular by former Mayor Ed Koch. During his term of service to the City of New York, Koch was renowned for stopping average New Yorkers on the street and asking them this, his favorite dumb question. Why would he do such a thing? I think he realized how easy it is for leaders to become isolated, even insulated from the very people they are entrusted to lead. If he didn’t ask the regular “Joes” and “Janes,” his only other alternative would be to trust the opinions of his advisors–most of whom were even farther removed from the man and woman on the street than he.

Dumb Question #2: What have we screwed up lately?

All of us enjoy having rose petals strewn before us. In other words, we like to hear people bragging and commenting on all the great things we have done and are doing. But what do those kinds of accolades really teach us? Not much, I’m afraid. Praise is great for ego boosting, but rather worthless when it comes to building a foundation for continual improvement. Mistakes, errors, miscalculations, screw ups–those are the things that can really teach us something. Admit it; haven’t you learned more from your mistakes over the years than you have from your successes? Well then, why not spend some focused time seeking out areas where we seem to be chronically screwing up, in order to shine a bright light on those areas as we begin to repair them.

Dumb Question #3: What should we be doing better?

Maybe you really are doing a great job and people are honestly struggling to find concrete answers to your Dumb Question #2. Congratulations! You must be doing something right as a leader. Keep it up. But never forget that some wise person once said that “good is the enemy of great.” And it is. There’s always room for improvement and improvement should be our never-ending quest–to be great at what we do and how we lead. Therefore go out and ask your constituencies — the employees, customers, colleagues, partners that make up your professional existence — what they would like to see done at a better, higher, more sophisticated level. Their answers may prove to shake the comfort zones you have allowed to form around you. But their answers may also serve as the catalysts and motivation to jumpstart heightened levels of performance.

Dumb Question #4: What would you like for me to do about that?

This may be the dumbest question of all and yet the smartest one you can ask. Everyone has an opinion. And even the lowliest of employee is known to openly and freely share opinions with fellow workers, family members, neighbors, even innocent bystanders waiting patiently in the grocery store checkout line–everyone, that is, but  you, their leader. Possibly the smartest thing a leader can do is to actively seek out the personal, specific opinions of others. Don’t be afraid to ask them Dumb Question #4, then shut up and listen. It’s nothing short of amazing what they might tell you–in startling detail. The chances are stacked in your favor that you will learn something from the conversation. And don’t worry; I know you’re thinking–what about the worst case scenario? What if they share suggestions that are unrealistic, unworkable and impossible? What then? My advice is to tell them so. In an honest, open manner, tell them what won’t work AND why. Most of the people we work with are reasonable people. If it truly is unworkable, based on your complete explanation, they will understand. And for those who just refuse to understand, at least they can never say you didn’t make the effort to explain things to them.

Here’s How It’s Done

Now that we’ve covered four dumb questions any leader can ask, maybe I should tell you how it’s done best.

1. Don’t label your question as a dumb one before you ask it. The fact that you have the courage to ask the obvious questions may actually make you look brilliant in the eyes of others. It worked for Socrates: after all “What is virtue?”

2. Don’t apologize for asking the question. Don’t dilly-dally. Don’t tip-toe around the question until it has lost its power, its uumph. Just step up and ask it. And ask it with sincerity and an open mind.

3. Don’t worry about what the answer to the question might be. You can’t predict nor control the future–the answer will be what it is. You can begin to deal with it once it has shown itself.

4. Don’t be intimidated if people don’t immediately offer a response to your question. Be patient. Let them process the question appropriately. After all, this may be the very first time their leader ever asked a dumb question–on purpose, at least.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
phil@leadersoughttoknow.com
phil@vanhooser.com 

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Posted by Phillip Van Hooser in Communication Skills, Customer Relationships, Decision Making, Front, Leadership, Leadership Characteristics, Managing Confrontation, Preventive Leadership, Success and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Steps to Manage a Confrontation

manage a confrontationHow many times in your role as leader have you experienced a clashing of attitudes or ideas with one of your followers or even another employee? How often are you called in to mediate or resolve situations where people just don’t see eye to eye on an issue? It happens frequently, doesn’t it? And if you’re like most people, you find these situations uncomfortable and full of emotional minefields.

As leaders, we recognize that problems like these need to be addressed, but so many of us hate and therefore avoid the confrontation we know needs to take place. We say things like, “this will only make matters worse.” “I’m not sure I can control my emotions.” “Maybe if I give it some time, the issue will resolve itself.” Do any of these sound familiar? Probably so. Unfortunately, it is at best, wishful thinking.

Knowing how to successfully manage a confrontation is a skill that all leaders need in their toolkit. If you’ve been avoiding confrontation for fear of doing more harm than good, consider equipping yourself with these techniques for managing the situation effectively.

How to Manage a Confrontation

1.  Prepare yourself in advance. Clearly determine the cause for the confrontation. Are you addressing a performance issue, an unacceptable attitude or perhaps a safety issue? Also determine the purpose or the goal for the confrontation. What do you want the confrontation to achieve? How do you want to be perceived after the confrontation? With these answers in mind, it will be easier to stay on target during the confrontation.

2.  Do not procrastinate if a confrontation is necessary. Many leaders try to convince themselves that the problem with work itself out or dissipate if left alone. Putting off what needs to be addressed allows more time for emotions to grow and frustrations to fester. The reality is that bad news does not get better with time.

3.  Avoid extreme emotional involvement. Never initiate a confrontation when you are emotionally charged. This is difficult, but that is why preparing yourself in advance is so important.

4.  Choose carefully the time and place for the confrontation. Go behind closed doors if possible. Confrontation in front of an audience invites embarrassment and offers undue opportunities for “emotional performances.”  Consider timing the confrontation at the end of the work day. This gives the other person an easy exit for cooling off and considering the issue.

5.  Work to determine the other person’s driving needs. Try to evaluate the issue from their vantage point.

6.  Willing accept some measure of responsibility for the situation – admit fault if you are to blame in part or in total.

7.  Allow the other person time to vent. Remember, you have had the advantage of sorting through your emotions before initiating this confrontation. Give the other person the same opportunity.

8.  Zero in on the problem, not the person. Positive confrontation focuses on the problem. Negative confrontation focuses on the person. Frame the conversation in terms of specific expectations for future performance. Encourage feedback regarding alternative solutions or approaches for managing the issue.

You may not find a solution immediately. You may never completely agree on the issue. But a leader’s responsibility is to address difficult issues and ensure steps are taken to work toward a mutually agreeable solution. It’s hard work – and something that leaders ought to know.

Phillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker, Concept Director at LeadersOughtToKnow®
phil@leadersoughttoknow.com

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