24 March 2011

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Questioning questioning

“Advice for the Leader-lorn” is an irregular series in which Dr. Mark answers your leadership questions. If you have a thorny leadership situation that you’d like Dr. Mark to address, send your question to Dr. Mark.

Today’s question comes from M.D., who asks, “There’s that old lawyer adage, ‘never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer.’ As a manager, my staff expect me to provide direction and inspiration, but I don’t want to appear to be overly directive. So, I ask a lot of questions which are typically aimed to make them think about options and alternatives that I want them to consider. However, lately, I’m torn because on the one hand, I don’t want to appear to be unknowledgeable, but on the other, I feel that I’m not uncovering all the information I need to make decisions. How can I change my style of questioning without my people losing respect for me because I suddenly ‘don’t know” what they think I’m supposed to know?

This is an important question, M.D., and thanks for having the courage to ask it. Many leaders believe that, by virtue of their position, they are expected to see all, know all, and make the right decision—every time. It seems that we have evolved into living the myth of the omnipotent and omniscient leader. At one time – especially in the hierarchy of guilds – it was more-or-less true that one attained a senior position, and earned the privilege and respect that came with it, by virtue of one’s technical skill, expertise, and ability to mentor apprentices and journeymen. This idea morphed into the concept of the “lead hand” in the factory environment, later becoming the phenomenon of the highly expert individual contributor being promoted to supervise or manage their department.

As the practice of management itself became professionalized, mostly since the 1960s, the expectation that the manager or executive would have complete knowledge of their department persisted. Cartoons like Dilbert reinforced the idea that subordinate workers who actually knew more than their “pointy-haired boss” could do a better job of managing, especially when said boss masqueraded their lack of knowledge. And largely because of the latter, the former is often made true!

There is another adage that comes from the world of continuous process improvement via Professor Kaoru Ishikawa that may prove useful: “Each person is the expert in his or her own job.” By separating the notions of technical expertise from managerial – or even better, leadership – expertise in your own mind, you can begin to feel more secure in what you do, and enable your staff to develop their own sense of autonomy and mastery in what they do. Such a separation may feel like you are ceding some degree of control; if it does, you're on the right track!

The perception of giving up control – and a leader’s mostly futile and counter-productive desire to hold onto control at almost any cost – is often at the heart of directive, as opposed to inquisitive questions. Great leaders can inspire autonomy and mastery among their staff – in other words, give up a large measure of control – in favour of creating environments in which innovation and new ideas flourish. For the leader, this means authentically living in a space of inquiry, in which, as Marshall McLuhan observes in his book, Take Today, “Discovery comes from dialogue that starts with the sharing of ignorance.” Such leaders inevitably find two things: First, such discoveries, more often than not, increase the space of alternatives thereby enabling the leader to make more effective decisions. And second, their people come to respect their leader even more, since genuinely seeking their advice increases their sense of Economic-ba (that is, feeling valued); leading with  humility while providing strong referent leadership are highly respected in the UCaPP world.

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