When A Question Is The Only Answer

As managers we must get away from giving an answer to every question we get asked. Good managers bat most questions straight back to the questioner, for reasons that are not always immediately apparent...

There’s a very old sales joke that runs something like:

"I hear you always answer a question with a question."

"Really. Who told you that?"

In every area of our working lives we are constantly asked for our opinions. It’s an exchange that takes place in every office in every workplace across the world. Each is the simplest of verbal exchanges: a question followed by an answer. But how much better each working environment would be if each question was answered with a question.

A business hierarchy demands that you justify your place on the ladder, and that’s the first mistake that so many managers often make: they allow ‘status maintenance’ activities to distract them from the most important activity of all – improving staff performance.

A great way for many of seeming to justify their position – maintaining their status - is to become the ‘indispensable sage’.

But what damage they do!

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Ask the manager why they feel they have to answer every question and they will tell you "It’s what we are here for." But it isn’t what they ‘are here for.’ It never was!

The very first definition of management I recall stated that it was the art of "Getting things done through other people." I’ve seen more elaborate definitions, but somehow that small phrase encapsulates exactly what should be happening. And if we are to get ‘other people’ to achieve their workloads then we should be getting them to think for themselves. Be independent. Make decisions.

I will never understand why so much is spent on recruiting the most able people, before ensuring that they have all of their thinking done for them.

But of course, you know and I know exactly why many managers do not want their staff thinking for themselves…

What Is The Sound Of One Hand Clapping?

When working with Leaders at many levels of an organisation, a question I am often asked is "But if the staff are making decisions and being independent, what is the point of our jobs?"

To adapt that wonderful piece of advice: "It’s the strategy, stupid."

The whole misunderstanding lies in the very question itself. The Leader’s job is to look forward, up and towards the horizon. The detail is in the hands of the direct reports.

"Ah, yes, but that’s all very well for strategic leaders, but I run a small team in a contact centre, what strategy would I ever get involved with?"

With every level of Leadership you have to be thinking forward (I intend to return to this subject at a later date). Looking ahead, reading the smoke signals of change so that your team is poised to either react or take advantage. That should be taking up your time. Not the incessant day-to-day detail that spills out of the immediate working environment. That is why you have staff!

Or is there another reason why managers like to be the ‘wise one’?

The Blame Game

Could it be that some managers do not want to think about the future? Or are they acting in this reactive, myopic way so as to be liked by their staff?

Many years ago a psychologist identified that some staff will deliberately manoeuvre the manager into the role of ‘Departmental Guru’. He called it the ‘Magic Helper Syndrome’. Why do they do this? Because the whole shooting match falls in on the ears of the manager should the decision be wrong!

"With Every Pair Of Hands You Get A Free Brain..."

So we’ve agreed some important things here.

Our job is to focus on outputs.

We achieve our outputs by building a team of capable people able to think for themselves and make decisions in an informed and intelligent way.

We avoid allowing ourselves to become the ‘Indispensable Sage’ where we dish out decisions like an over-enthusiastic Aunty dishing out confetti at a wedding.

So what do we do the next time someone asks us for our help?

We look them straight in the eye, and counter with a simple…

"What are your thoughts?"

It’s a great skill to master.

"I understand you are the sort of manager that always answers a question with a question."

"Really. Who told you that?"