Back 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.
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Recently a reader posed a sensitive scenario that often proves conflicting for organizational leaders. In essence the reader asked, “How long is too long for an organization to accommodate for an employee’s personal crisis, such as the illness and death of a family member?”
By accommodations, I mean time off, flexible work schedules, and reduction of job responsibilities. In this scenario, the crisis has lingered for two years. Performance appraisals indicate the employee has and continues to perform below expectations. The dilemma is this: How does a supervisor, in a sensitive manner, lead an employee in this situation to a) improve performance; b) accept a lesser role with the company; or c) move away from the company?
Certainly, few leaders want to be thought of as cold and insensitive in a situation like this one. It’s a precarious dilemma. The pain and emotional suffering that is certain to have been experienced by an employee is something that none of us ever want to face. Organizational leaders that work to ease the pressure of situations like this are to be commended. Frankly, in this day and time, I fear most simply wouldn’t make such an effort to accommodate an employee for an extended period of time. They would have either determined that they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–justify the sacrifices on the part of the organization.
But, the fact remains that more is now expected of the employee and the employee knows it. Can the employee rise (return) physically, emotionally and intellectually to the level of performance necessary and required by this position? At this point, no one really knows–not even the individual. But, for the good of the organization and all who are vested in its success, the organization is within its rights to expect more than has been realized over the past two years.
As a leader, have you faced a similar situation? Have weeks passed into months as you’ve avoided addressing the issue? Are your superiors, colleagues as well as your employees questioning your leadership, your fairness, your ability to be objective?
If this reader asked for your guidance, what would you suggest?
Here are some ideas to consider:
1. If the company offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), I suggest utilizing that service to identify an outside, professional counselor to assist the employee. There is no reason to know the substance of their discussions. However, it is fair to inform both the counselor and the employee that the end goal of their session(s) is one of the following options:
a) Eliminate all barriers (including emotional ones) that are currently preventing the employee from returning to the expected performance levels required of the position the employee currently occupies. Identifying specific standards of performance is appropriate and would be recommended.
b) Decide to step out of the current position and into another available position within the company that would accommodate the changes this employee may have experienced relative to professional mindset, performance, energy and commitment during the preceding two years.
c) Voluntarily abandon the position within the organization entirely and seek more suitable employment opportunities given the changes in perspective and priorities that the employee may have experienced.
2. I suggest a firm deadline be assigned to this counseling activity from the beginning of the process, as in, “We will expect your decision regarding what the future may hold for you here within the next 3 to 6 weeks” (or whatever period you think reasonably acceptable).
3. It should also be reinforced that regardless whether Option 1 or 2 is selected, future performance evaluations will be conducted to determine whether acceptable levels of performance are being met. If they are not, appropriate actions will be taken consistent with company policy regarding professional job performance.
These are certainly not easy or comfortable conversations to have with anyone, especially an employee who has been through so much. However, honesty and expediency are key here. The employee needs to hear the truth and needs to hear it ASAP. Any less would be unfair to the individual and to the integrity of the organizational process.
Great leadership is not easy and it’s not always clear-cut. But for those leaders who commit themselves to working through tough situations like this, a leadership reputation of fairness, honesty and integrity is the reward.
Using the techniques learned as an umpire calling balls and strikes, I illustrate an important decision making tip to eliminate opportunities for mistakes and move from reactive decisions to proactive decisions.
The baseball diamond may be a long way from a manager’s office, but this decision making model has been used far more times as a manager than as an umpire.