I have recently been using the Hanging the Mirror: The Discipline of Reflective Leadership in my leadership coaching and consulting work.
After reading the book at my suggestion, a leader in one of my client organizations had the self-awareness and courage to tell me that he believed he was doing a poor job in the area of truly involving the members of his leadership team. The leader had been ruminating about the following quotation from the book:
Involvement’s effectiveness rests entirely on the degree to which a leader truly values the thinking and judgment of others. (p. 90)
Even though he met with his leadership team weekly to discuss and resolve issues, he reported that the pattern of interaction was to have his direct reports share issues and conditions in their areas of responsibility and then he, the leader, would instruct his direct reports as to what to do about those issues and conditions.
He said that this pattern suggested he was not only doing a poor job of recognizing and acknowledging the worth of his direct reports, he was also stunting the growth of his leadership team by making the team dependent on his own judgment and command decisions.
He wanted to change this pattern, but, in his experimentation to date, whenever he withheld his own thoughts and opinions in the hopes that the other team members would step forward with their own, he was met by silence and the other team members staring back at him while they waited for his instructions. He felt stuck.
We discussed the fact that asking open-ended questions of his direct reports is one of the most effective ways to acknowledge their worth, foster involvement and generate new ideas. Consequently, we decided to craft a list of questions he could use to break the silence, change the leader-centered dynamic in his team, and generate inclusive team discussions in response to his direct-reports descriptions of their issues.
The questions we forged to deepen thinking and extend discussion were as follows:
- What led up to this situation?
- What do you make of it all?
- How do you feel about it?
- What are the possibilities?
- What are other angles we can think of?
- What are the possible solutions?
- How does this fit with your/our plans and values?
- What will you have to do to get the job done?
- What else might need to be attended to?
- What support do you need to accomplish these things?
Three weeks after starting to use these questions (and others that occurred to him), the leader contacted me and said that the dynamics in his leadership team were dramatically changing. No longer was he the center of all the discussions and solutions.
He was also discovering that when the team collaboratively addressed issues, much better decisions were resulting—decisions that were better in terms of creativity and quality than those the leader had been dictating in the past.
Bill Harley is the President of Harley Consulting & Coaching, a St. Paul-based human and organization development firm which provides consultation, coaching, education, and facilitation services to release human and organizational potential in service to others. See www.harleycoaching.com for more information.