Leaders are often in a leadership role because they are excellent problem-solvers. But too many leaders solve the WRONG problems because they have failed to truly listen. They wind up frustrated and disillusioned because they thought they had dealt with something, but here it is again, sitting across the desk from them. And who has the time for that?!
If I as a customer walk into almost any business with a complaint with service, the employee I speak with will—sometimes within seconds!—respond by saying, “I’ll go get the manager.” Managers are often overwhelmed because they have not coached their employees well.
I see this on boards as well. A board member will approach the board chair with a complaint, and sometimes the chair takes this problem on all-too-quickly—and takes it away from the board member! A healthy board culture empowers each director to take full ownership, and the chair's role is to indeed help process and coach directors through issues that arise, but in a way that supports each member.
One of the keys to changing all of this is to go against all your instincts: s l o w y o u r s e l f d o w n...
“Even with the best of intentions,” writes Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, "today’s time-strapped managers and leaders often find themselves defaulting to a limited old-school management approach: tell them rather than ask them; solve it for them rather than helping them figure out. It perpetuates bottlenecks, fire-fighting, and managers with just too much stuff on their plate."
In his book, Bungay Stanier outlines seven simple questions that will help managers increase the quality of coaching they can give their employees in these situations. These questions should be in every leader's back pocket! Any time a staff member, board director, or volunteer approaches you with a problem—or has an issue you need to approach them about—these seven questions will guide you to empower them, understand the real issue at hand, and achieve a better solution together.
Question 1: "What's on your mind?” It’s the primer question. You know something is up. Start pulling it down.
Question 2: "And what else?" “Someone's first answer is never the only answer—and rarely the best answer,” Bungay Stanier notes.
Question 3: "What's the real challenge here for you?" This question invites them to reflect on their personal involvement and clarify the real problem that THEY need resolved.
Question 4: "What do you want?” “Many disagreements or dysfunctional relationships will untangle with this simple but difficult exchange: 'Here's what I want. What do you want?'"
Question 5: "How can I help?" Out of what the person in front of you has just said they want, not all of that is your responsibility. Don’t jump in and solve the wrong problem! Ask and listen.
Question 6: "If you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?" Both you and your employees will burn out by not managing this balance. Help guard against this by coaching your employee towards realistic expectations.
Question 7: "What was most useful for you?" This question not only infers that you have truly been helpful through this conversation, but it gives the employee a chance to take note of that value. They will walk away having identified where they are further ahead than before the conversation, and you might gain some valuable insight on how you are doing as a coach.
Again, the stand-out value of these questions is that they consistently correct the common misconception that leaders are supposed to fix problems. (Note: this misconception may have been perpetuated by the leader themselves!) We ALL fix problems. As leaders, we serve our reports by coaching them towards the resolution of an issue, not by instantly adding it to our list of problems to solve.
Copy these questions into a note on your phone or notebook! By using them, you will begin to solve the RIGHT problems. And you won’t even be solving them alone—your direct reports and peers will volunteer more ownership in finding resolution to the issues at hand. They will feel more supported, more empowered, and more valued by you. They will invest more and perform better, and you will find yourself with more time, more energy, and greater respect as a leader.