Leading people through questions

There are many definitions of what leadership is. In my opinion, one of the most impressive ones is: “Leadership is making an impact with an intention.” Influence can be exercised in many ways, and a leader must constantly balance between ethical and moral principles that are defined in a society or company. On the other hand, someone who is “influenced” may feel manipulated, even if that is not the case. There is a thin line between manipulation and influence, and the leader must constantly pay attention to whether the set expectations are matched.

There are many leadership styles, and they are all, more or less, used in working with employees. Some are more efficient and focused on goals, supported in certain corporate cultures. Others are more people-oriented, focused on team relations and harmony creation.

FOCUS ON GOALS

Very often, due to lack of time (or patience), leaders turn to directive leadership methods. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for team members to like such a style, where the leader clearly and in detail assigns tasks. Is delegation one of the key leadership skills? In the short run, this approach brings visible and highly measurable results, which is especially important in some parts of the company, such as sales or marketing.

In the long run, there will often be “material fatigue”, ie. to overworked employees and loss of motivation. These are the first and basic factors that can lead to a drop in productivity, and thus to a reduction in revenue at the level of the entire company.

FOCUS ON EMPLOYEES

On the other hand, there are leaders who are really people-oriented and who often put relationships within the team ahead of company or team goals. Under the guise of long-term results, they often face some negative consequences in achieving short-term goals.

AND A SIMULTANEOUS FOCUS ON GOALS AND EMPLOYEES?

The logical question that arises is, can these two approaches be combined?

Leaders who ask a lot of questions and help their team members find the best solution on their own may have the answer. A leader is someone who watches the goal with one eye, all the time, while focusing on his team member giving his maximum and realizing his full potential. With this style, the whole process can be described in four basic steps.

1. Ask a question

2. Listen to the answer

3. Listen to the action steps

4. Follow the action steps and correct them if necessary

It seems very simple at first glance, but as is the case with all simple frameworks, they turn out to be difficult for a daily, disciplined implementation. Even when this is achieved, it is necessary to ensure the sustainability of action steps and their ability to adapt to the new situation.

The answer to sustainability lies in the loop between steps 1 and 2. Due to daily commitments, lack of time, tight schedule of meetings, the leader often does not have time to delve into asking questions. Ask a question, get an answer, and move on to steps 3 and 4. Leaders who have enough patience and curiosity to ask additional questions and demonstrate a willingness to really hear what lies behind the words spoken are leaders who make a difference. Question quality is something that makes a difference. The quality of listening is something that makes a difference.

ASK A QUESTION

The right question, at the right time and context, can lead to great insights from team members. Asking a simple, honest question is both spontaneous and easy, but also very difficult and complex. The reason for that is a sincere desire for the leader to listen and understand his team member. If he follows, understands and feels what his interlocutor is talking about, the next question only arises. Patience not to go into explaining and “delegating” action steps is crucial. Additional questions, no matter how clear the topic may seem, provide a real, sophisticated set of options. And sometimes, an additional question leads to giving up such an “obvious” and simple option. By asking questions, the leader also learns together with the team member.

LISTEN TO THE ANSWER

The answer to the question does not necessarily mean the best option. In teams where there is no safe environment, team members will give “socially desirable answers”. That is why a leader, by asking additional questions, listening to both said and unspoken things, can get to the heart of the problem that his team member is facing. In order for a leader to hear and understand well, he needs to ask an additional question and listen again. And so, as long as it is necessary for the situation to be viewed from all angles and some less obvious options to be clarified. There is a danger that the QUESTION-ANSWER loop will stay longer than necessary. That timing is gained through experience. However, the risks are incomparably less than when the loop remains too short, the leader does not clarify the situation enough by asking questions, and the team member stays somewhere halfway, with a sense of haste and incompleteness.

After leaving the “QUESTION-ANSWER” loop, the leader initiates the process of creating action steps by leaving the process entirely to his team member. Here, too, the patience of the leader is needed, so that he would not be tempted to start proposing readily-made solutions, obvious to him.

The last step in this process is to monitor the action steps and their potential correction. This part is very important. Although the leader and his team member came up with a great solution, these action steps can be meaningless tomorrow because the environment has changed. Monitoring action steps and correcting them (if necessary) provides greater focus on the goal, and less on ways to reach it. The focus on the goal was maintained all the time.

As for the “people” work of this type of leadership, the very fact that someone with genuine interest asks questions and listens with full attention is a clear signal to a team member that his opinion is respected. And not only that, he is asked to propose his own solution and its implementation. A member of the team knows what is expected of him, that the leader is there for support and that failure is not a failure, but an opportunity to learn something new. All these facts are clear indicators that the leader has managed to create a safe environment in which team members learn and progress without pressure. Satisfied team members and constant focus on the goal is one of the proven recipes for a successful leader.

There are many leaders who did not have any “formal” coaching education, but had “hearing” for their team members, built trust, had a clear vision of success and became great leaders.

“Any similarity to coaching and coaching tools is intentional.”

About Srdjan Pavlovic 39 Articles
Srdjan is a professional and agile coach with more than 20 years of experience in the field of leadership, professional and agile coaching. He is guided by the mission of creating synergies between professional and agile coaching, combining best tools and practices. He is Certified Team Coach awarded by Scrum Alliance, Professional Certified Coach awarded by ICF (International Coaching Federation), and Agile Team Facilitator awarded by IC Agile. Srdjan was the first Director of Internal communication at ICF Serbia chapter. His focus is business agility and new ways of doing business. It helps companies develop agile mindsets and processes, different types of leadership, and new business models. In March 2018, he established a people development magazine “Business coaching”. That is his contribution to the best practices and knowledge sharing. The magazine is free of charge and supported by many individuals, organizations and corporations.

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