bCentral Home
Your Online Business Center

The talking - listening conundrum

Ask questions and give your staff space so they find the answers themselves.

I had an interesting conversation with a CEO this week. The head of a growing SME in America, I had asked him what he thought his success stemmed from. Was it because he had surrounded himself with the best people? Was it because he had his team continually test out their decisions before they made them? Was it because he was an inspirational leader?

Quote�In many situations, he had learned that the best thing to say was nothing at all.�End Quote

His answer was that he worked very hard at communicating the right messages to his people, and in many situations, he had learned that the best thing to say was nothing at all. There is a long-standing belief in the organisational effectiveness field that questions are far more important than answers, and this CEO was a firm believer in this.

Instead of providing answers to all the questions from his direct reports, he would turn the situation around and ask them questions. When asked if a specific initiative should be stepped up, he would respond with something like, 'do you believe that it is going to plan?' When asked about a hiring decision, he would respond with something to the effect, 'is this person going to give us the skills we need and at the same time, fit into the culture we have worked so hard to build?' And when asked what he wanted a direct report to focus on after completing a work project, he responded with, 'where do you think you could add the most value?'

Copying Lord Nelson

Quote�The problem is complex and needs to be dealt with. There are serious unintended consequences if it is not.�End Quote

The CEO was doing what most leaders do; they create environments in which managers and employees can be successful, in this case, by helping them to think differently about the challenge they face. Too often, we find managers default on their responsibilities by asking someone else to take a decision for them. Making decisions is what managers are paid to do and if they can avoid this responsibility by having someone else do it for them, then one might question why they are there.

The problem of managers not making decisions is complex and needs to be dealt with. There are serious unintended consequences if it is not. If managers are allowed to avoid making decisions, what will happen if the person they go to for answers is unable to provide them? Does the work just not get done until that person returns? Do they guess at what to do? Will they feel confident that they can make the best decision themselves, when they have been able to avoid doing so in the past? All of these scenarios can be frightening - to shareholders, customers, suppliers, and senior managers alike.

Part of being a good leader is having the ability to create a clear picture of where an organisation needs to go, as well as how it will look along the journey. But it is not a good idea for the leader to tell people every little step to follow. A good example of this came from the Battle of Trafalgar; Lord Nelson developed the strategy for the battle, but he left it to his commanders to do what they needed to do to make the strategy pay off. And what worked for Lord Nelson is what successful business leaders do today. Yes, there can be some risk involved in doing this, but the risks associated with managers not making decisions are even greater.

Take risks or do nothing?

Quote�Managers need to be encouraged to take measured risks if they deem it important.�End Quote

Managers need to be encouraged to make decisions and take measured risks if they deem it important; they need to realise that risk taking within parameters is better than becoming paralysed by inaction. And they need to realise that expecting answers now will cause them to avoid making decisions themselves in the longer term.

I know many managers who work for organisations today who say that, yes, this is what they want - authority and responsibility. But at the same time they profess this desire, they demonstrate that they are more comfortable being told what to do. Might it be a defence mechanism in case the decision doesn't deliver what it should – 'it wasn't my decision' - or is it a belief that the decision is to big or important for them to attempt - 'I have never had to decide something at this level before'? Either reason is a symptom of an organisation that will never realise its potential, much less achieve its goals.

The next time someone comes to you with a question, you may want to do what the CEO does. Instead of providing the answer, create the space where the questioner can find the answer for himself. And over time, you will find that you won’t have to say anything at all.

About the author

Dr James Rieley Dr James B Rieley is an advisor to senior leadership teams from all sectors. He has been recognised globally for his work on how to create environments in which organisations can realise their potential. He is the author of Gaming the System (FT/Prentice Hall, 2001); Plain Talk about Business Performance (Pen Press, 2004); Leadership (Hodder, 2006); and Strategy and Performance (Hodder, 2006); as well as writing a column for the Daily Telegraph on business effectiveness. He can be reached at jbrieley@rieley.com and www.rieley.com.

What next?

Harness your people power - John Herbert shares the wisdom gained from years of motivating employees

Sign into Microsoft Small Business+ for web-based training, online chat help and software support.

sign in

Find an IT consultant
Enter your postcode to find your nearest IT consultant

Learn more >>

How did you finance your startup?

How did you finance your startup?

Free business newsletters - subscribe now

Our free newsletters are packed full of business advice and ideas - plus all the latest news

Security information

Get the latest bulletins and updates direct from Microsoft