Asking for Input

In my last several blog posts, I’ve been writing about SLII® micro skills—leader behaviors that help direct reports get things done while increasing their motivation and confidence. In this post I’ll focus on Asking for Input—a supportive behavior that not only develops mutual trust and respect between leaders and direct reports, but also benefits the organization.

Why should a leader regularly ask direct reports for their input? There are multiple reasons; I’ll talk about three of the big ones here.

Asking for input engages your direct reports.

The Gallup organization—famous for its employee engagement research—has long recognized that one of the primary reasons employees become disengaged is because they feel their thoughts and opinions don’t count. This disengagement has a significant negative impact on productivity and the bottom line.

The leader who charges ahead and makes decisions without asking for input from followers contributes to employee disengagement. A study conducted by John Izzo, author of Stepping Up: How Taking Responsibility Changes Everything (Berrett-Koehler, 2012), found that the number one reason employees don’t take more initiative at work is that their leaders fail to get their input before making decisions. This is right in line with our own research on organizational change. When those who are being asked to change are not asked for their input, the change is likely to fail.

Whether it’s on a small project or a large change effort, the principle is the same: by asking for input, leaders can turn disinterested employees into an engaged ones.

Asking for input sets up a mutual, two-way conversation.

In the old days, leadership was regarded as a top-down conversation. The assumption was that the leader was the one with all the answers and the people doing the work were merely “hired hands.” Today, we recognize that leadership is more of a side-by-side endeavor, where both leader and direct report work together to create results.

By asking for input and listening well, leaders create connectedness and build trust with those they lead. A climate of trust leads to more productive employees and a healthier organization. In our research of more than 1,000 leaders, 59 percent of respondents indicated they had left an organization due to trust issues, citing lack of communication as a key contributing factor.

Asking for input also reduces the chance of miscommunication. For example, suppose you’ve just given instructions on an assignment to a direct report. To ask for input, you might say, “I’ve been talking for a while and would like your feedback. Why don’t you recap for me what you’ve heard, so I can make sure I’ve given you the direction you need to be successful?”

Asking for input stimulates people’s best thinking.

Not only does asking for input improve employee engagement, but it also taps into people’s inherent intelligence and creativity. Let’s face it: direct reports often know more about their jobs than their managers do. They also have far more power and potential to contribute to the organization than leaders often realize. From the 3M Post-It® Note to the Starbucks Frappucchino®, stories abound about employee innovations that went on to become multimillion-dollar revenue earners.

But even when focused on everyday projects, asking for input invites employees to participate in problem solving and contribute their expertise. The positive results are two-fold: The employee has more job satisfaction and the organization benefits from the employee’s knowledge.

If leaders don’t ask for input—and value that input—they may be hurting their organization more than they know. Keep in mind that when Steve Wozniak was an engineer for Hewlett Packard, he tried five times to get management interested in his idea for a personal computer. Wozniak finally left HP, teamed up with Steve Jobs, and founded a little company named Apple. Talk about a missing out on some good input!

In the coming weeks, I’ll be covering the remaining SLII® micro skills, so watch this space!

Direct Report Brand New to a Task? Show and Tell Them How to Do It

In my last few blog posts, I’ve covered one Directive and two Supportive leadership behaviors—micro skills commonly used by SLII® leaders. In this blog post, my focus is on Showing and Telling How, another Directive leadership behavior. Directive behaviors are actions that shape and control what, how, and when things are done.

As part of our company’s SLII® training, we teach that when someone is new to a task or goal, they need specific direction from their leader. One aspect of this direction involves the leader showing and telling the direct report how to do the task correctly. After all, if someone doesn’t know what a good job looks like, how can they be successful?

As simple as this seems, many leaders have a problem with showing and telling how. Why? Because they believe it’s inconsistent to manage some people one way and others a different way—so they choose a leadership style they are comfortable with and use it all the time, on everyone. But suppose a leader’s preferred style is Delegating—assigning a task to a direct report and then leaving them alone to figure it out. That style simply won’t work on a person who has no idea how to do the task. The leader is setting the direct report up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you hire a smart, likeable, outgoing person to sell your service or product. They possess many of the qualities a great salesperson needs, but no actual sales experience. On the other hand, they have a positive attitude and they’re eager to learn and committed to being a successful salesperson. In terms of sales, according to SLII®, this person is an Enthusiastic Beginner who needs a Directing leadership style.

Knowing this, you give your new hire specific direction about everything that has to do with sales. You go with them on their first sales call. You have detailed discussions—even role play with them—on how to close a sale. You show them what experienced salespeople do and let them practice in low-risk situations. You create a crystal clear picture of what a good job looks like, and you remember the importance of checking for understanding all along the way. Throughout this showing and telling process, both you and your direct report know that you are setting them up for success.

As an SLII® leader who uses all four leadership styles as well as the Directive and Supportive micro skills, you are building meaningful connections with your team members—and you’re inspiring them to take on the new challenges of our ever-changing world.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for introductions to more SLII® micro skills!

6 Practices That Will Make You a Better Listener

As we begin to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and run smack into the turmoil around continuing racism in our country, I think it’s a good time to review an essential leadership skill: listening.

So often the key to overcoming a difficulty—whether it’s in the workplace or at home—is to stop talking and start listening. I often like to joke that if God had wanted us to talk more than listen, he would have given us two mouths.

Yet few people have mastered the art of listening. Why is this seemingly simple skill so difficult?

Research published by Wendell Johnson in the Harvard Business Review examined one way the listening process goes wrong. Johnson found that because of how our brains work, we think much faster than people talk. As we listen to someone talk, we have time to think of things other than what the person is saying. As a result, we end up listening to a few thoughts of our own in addition to the words we’re hearing spoken. Usually we can get back to what the person is saying, but sometimes we listen to our own thoughts too long and miss part of the other person’s message.

To sharpen your listening skills, learn to apply the following six practices.

  1. Resist the Temptation to Jump In. Sometimes people need time to formulate their thoughts. Particularly if you’re an extrovert, control the impulse to finish people’s sentences or fill silences with your own opinions and ideas.

 

  1. Pay Attention to Body Language. Listen with your eyes as well as your ears. Watch a person’s face and body movements. Are they avoiding eye contact? What about the tone of their voice—do you hear confidence, eagerness, or perhaps irritation? Be aware of clues that their silent behaviors provide, while being sensitive to your own nonverbal signals. For example, is your body language encouraging someone to continue with a conversation, or silently telling them to stop?

 

  1. Ask Questions. This is not about interrogation or control. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what is being said. Use open-ended questions to encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Ask clarifying questions to check for understanding; for example, “When did this happen?” Ask prompting questions to encourage deeper thinking; for example, “What do you think caused this to happen?”

 

  1. Reflect FeelingsAcknowledge any emotions the person is expressing and show them you understand by restating their feelings back to them in a nonjudgmental way. This demonstrates that you not only understand their message but also empathize with their feelings.

 

  1. Paraphrase. Again, resist the temptation to respond with your own thoughts. Instead, restate in your own words what the person said. This demonstrates that you heard what they said and assures that you heard them correctly.

 

  1. Summarize. State in a nutshell what was communicated during the entire conversation. Don’t worry about repeating the exact words. What’s important is to capture the main points and general sequence of what was said. This is where you want to reflect the speaker’s conclusion back to them to indicate that you understand.

 

These practices are not easy—they require time and effort to master. But once you do master them, you’ll build more satisfying relationships. You’ll also avoid a lot of the errors, frustrations, and inefficiencies that come from unclear communication. Think of how our homes, workplaces, nation, and world could change for the better if we all learned to listen to one another.

Listening is one of the seven supportive micro skills of an SLII® leader. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring more of these micro skills, so stay tuned!

 

 

When the Thrill Is Gone: Dealing with Decommitted People

One of the biggest challenges managers face is how to respond when they notice a direct report has decreased motivation or confidence to do a job. We call this decommitment.

For the most part, leaders avoid dealing with decommitment, largely because it is such an emotionally charged issue and they don’t know how. When they do address it, they often make matters worse: They turn the not-engaged into the actively disengaged! It doesn’t occur to many leaders that something they or their organization is doing or failing to do may be the cause of the eroded commitment. Yet evidence suggests that’s often the case.

Lack of feedback, lack of recognition, lack of clear performance expectations, unfair standards, broken promises, being yelled at or blamed, and being overworked and stressed out are just a few reasons people lose their motivation and commitment.

So how do you, an enlightened leader, deal with a decommitted direct report without making matters worse? The most effective way is to catch decommitment early—the first time you see it—before it gets out of control and festers. Then take the following steps to get back on track.

Step 1: Prepare Before You Meet

Before meeting with your direct report, clarify the specific performance or behavior that you want to discuss. Do not attempt to address multiple issues at once. Gather all the facts that support the existence of the decommitment. If it’s a performance issue, quantify the decline in performance. If it’s a behavior issue, limit your observations to what you have seen. Don’t make assumptions or bring in the perceptions of others—these are sure ways to generate defensiveness.

Now identify anything you or the organization might have done to contribute to the decommitment. Have you ever talked to the person about their performance or behavior? Have you made performance expectations clear? Does the person know what a good job looks like? Have you been using the right leadership style? Is the person being rewarded for inappropriate performance or behavior? (Poor behavior in organizations is often rewarded—that is, nobody says anything.) Is the person being punished for good performance or behavior? (People often are punished for good behavior—that is, they do well and someone else gets the credit.) Do policies support the desired performance? For example, is training or time made available to learn needed skills?

Once you have done a thorough job of preparing, you’re ready for Step 2.

Step 2: Schedule a Meeting, State the Meeting’s Purpose, and Set Ground Rules

Scheduling a meeting is vital. It’s important to begin the meeting by stating the meeting’s purpose and setting ground rules to ensure that both of you will be heard in a way that doesn’t arouse defensiveness. For example, you might open the meeting with something like this:

“I want to talk about what I see as a serious issue with your responsiveness to information inquiries. I’d like to set some ground rules about how our discussion proceeds, so that we can both fully share our perspectives. By working together to identify and agree on the issue and its causes, we can set a goal and develop an action plan to resolve it.

“First, I’d like to share my perceptions of the issue—what I’m noticing and what I think may have caused it. I want you to listen but not to respond to what I say, except to ask questions for clarification. Then I want you to restate what I said, so that I know you understand my perspective. When I’m finished, I’d like to hear your side of the story, with the same ground rules. I’ll restate what you said until you know I understand your point of view. Does this seem like a reasonable way to get started?”

Using these ground rules, you should begin to understand each other’s point of view on the issue. Making sure that both of you have been heard is a wonderful way to reduce defensiveness and move toward resolution.

Once you have set ground rules for your meeting, you are ready for Step 3.

Step 3: Work Toward Mutual Agreement and Commit to a Plan

The next step is to identify where there is agreement and disagreement on both the issue and its causes. Your job is to see if enough of a mutual understanding can be reached so that mutual problem solving can go forward. Both of you probably won’t agree on everything—but see if there is enough common ground to work toward a resolution. If not, revisit those things that are getting in the way, and restate your positions to see if understanding and agreement can be reached.

When you think it is possible to go forward, ask, “Are you willing to work with me to get this resolved?”

If you still can’t get a commitment to go forward, you need to use a directing leadership style. Set clear performance expectations and a time frame for achieving them; set clear, specific performance standards and a schedule for tracking performance progress; and state consequences for nonperformance. Understand that this is a last-resort strategy that may resolve the performance issue but not the commitment issue.

When you get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, it is normal to feel great relief and assume that the issue is resolved. Not so fast.

If you have contributed to the cause of the problem, you need to take steps to correct what has been done. But you may not be in a position to patch things up if it was the organization that created the problem. In this case, a simple acknowledgment of how your direct report has been impacted may be enough to release the negative energy and regain the person’s commitment.

Once you finally get a commitment to work together to resolve the issue, you can go to Step 4 and partner for performance.

Step 4: Partner for Performance

Now you and the direct report need to have a partnering for performance discussion in which you jointly decide the leadership style you will use to provide work direction or coaching. You should set a goal, establish an action plan, and schedule a progress-check meeting. This last step is crucial!

Resolving decommitment issues requires sophisticated interpersonal and performance management skills. Your first try at one of these conversations is not likely to be as productive as you would like. However, if you conduct the conversation in honest good faith, it will reduce the impact of less-than-perfect interpersonal skills and set the foundation for a productive relationship built on commitment and trust.

Ask Empowering Questions

Most of us—even millennials—have a history of working under guidance and control at school and in our workplaces. Therefore, we tend to think of authority as external rather than internal. The following questions are all too familiar to us:

At school: “What does the teacher want me to do to get good grades?”

At work: “What does my boss want me to do?”

While things are changing, we live and work in a culture predominated by top-down management and hierarchical thinking, so we’re far less likely to ask questions like these:

At school: “What do I want to learn from this class? How will I know I have learned something I can use?”

At work: “What do I need to do to help my company succeed?”

These are empowering questions. President Kennedy made a call for these kinds of questions when he challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Empowering questions open the possibility for us to become stronger and more competent. So why don’t we ask them more often?

It gets back to all those hard-earned parenting, teaching, and managing skills we learned from our hierarchical culture. Indeed, we feel it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, or managers to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. We feel we’d be shirking our responsibilities to ask children, students, or direct reports empowering questions such as these:

“What do you think needs to be done, and why is it important?”

“What do you think your goals should be?”

“How do you think you should go about achieving your goals?”

Many of us are afraid to relinquish control to our direct reports because we’re concerned about outcomes. Yet organizations with a culture of empowerment almost always outperform their hierarchical competitors. Consider the following story from Ritz-Carlton, a company famous for its culture of empowerment.

A loss prevention officer at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was called for the second time to a guest room after receiving a complaint of children playing hockey in the hallway. A typical response might have been to knock on the family’s door and ask them to be quiet. But Ritz-Carlton encourages its employees to think for themselves as they live by the company’s “Gold Standards.” These standards invite empowering questions such as:

  • How can I respond to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests?
  • How can I create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests?

Rather than tell the parents to shush their hallway-hockey-playing kids, the loss prevention officer came up with a creative solution. He enlisted banquet employees to isolate space in one of the meeting rooms and create a hockey rink, using banquet tables as a frame. While the “rink” was being set up, he drove to a local sports store and bought two hockey nets, six sticks, and hockey balls. Finally, he delivered a written note to the family, inviting them to an impromptu hockey match against the Loss Prevention All-Stars.

Needless to say, the family was wowed.

A tight match was played between the Loss Prevention All-Stars and Team Family, with Team Family emerging victorious. The game was recorded on the Loss Prevention in-house cameras and Team Family was sent photos of their epic game.

Double-wow.

My friend Tony Robbins often says, “Successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers.” So, ask yourself some empowering questions, and encourage your people to do the same.