The Best Leadership Question Ever

Oct 5, 2012, Written by Sue Miley

You walk into the door of your business on Monday morning.  Before you make it to your office, an array of team members stop you in the hall.

“We had a problem with the server this weekend, what should we do about clients who were down?”

“Do you want a big room with windows for the meeting, or something smaller, more intimate?”

“Do you remember that email I received last week, I did what you said and it still didn’t make them happy.  What next?”

Scared to even detour for coffee, you answer, rapid fire, one by one as you wade through the crowded path to your silent office.  You enter and immediately shut the door, take a deep breath, and wonder if you have enough answers to make it through the week.

You think, “Lord, what do I do?  Can’t anyone here solve even the simplest of problems?  I know it sounds prideful, but everyone comes to me!”

The Psychology of Deferring to the Boss

I think there are a few issues going on here:

  1. You are in the habit of answering everyone’s questions and so they come to you because it is the easiest and quickest way to solve their problems.
  2. Since you solve them, they have not built up their problem solving muscles.
  3. The team members may not be learning and growing in their jobs if they are not being held responsible for the outcome.  If you solve all of the problems, they assume you are taking responsibility for the outcome too.

Before you lose your mind, and don’t want to come in next Monday, I have a way to start the change process.

It is a simple start.

Every time someone on your team asks you a question….

Every time they bring you a problem that needs a solution….

Each time they complain about a situation…..

Ask them this question:

What do you think we should do?

No matter how simple the problem or complex….

Ask them for their opinion, thoughts, knowledge.

You may be thinking that they wouldn’t ask you if they knew the answer.  I don’t agree.  I think if someone always has the answers, never makes me dig, or never makes me go figure it out, I am going to go ask them before I even try.

So every time an employee asks you something turn it around and ask them back.

What do you think we should do?

Mentoring Opportunity

Several important mentoring opportunities arrive:

  1. It is an opportunity to validate their answer and knowledge if it is correct.  “That is exactly what I would do, go for it!”
  2. It is an opportunity to move accountability to the capable team member by telling them that you want them to research the answer first or to come up with a couple of alternative solutions and bring them to you.
  3. It provides many teaching moments.  If they have a solution you do not agree with, you can discuss their solution and why it may not work.  Give them an opportunity to think through it with you and see your process of problem solving.
  4. Soon it gives them a chance to own the solutions.  You may not feel it is the way you would handle something, but you have seen them grow, and are willing to let them handle it in their own way and see what happens.  It is an opportunity to support them.
  5. It trains the employee or team member to only come to you with a problem if they are going to also bring some ideas and solutions with them.  It moves them into proactively managing their own role and responsibilities.

Tell Them Why You Are Doing It

It isn’t a trick.  Tell them you want to know their opinion.   You want to train them to problem-solve and come up with creative solutions that match them and their style.

At first they may wonder what is wrong with you.

But soon you will be sauntering in on Monday morning with nothing obstructing your path to your office accept the aroma of the coffee pulling you to the coffee pot.

And you will remember this post. And you will think,

“Yes, she was right……it is the best leadership question ever!”

What do you think we should do?


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Sue Miley

Sue Miley MBA, MA, LPC helps small business owners build successful businesses on a foundation of Christian values. After 20 years in business, and 10 years as a Christian counselor, Sue uses a combination of faith, business and psychology to help clients in business and in life.

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