The most powerful sentence in a Leader’s arsenal
“What do you think?”
Yes. What do you think is one of the most powerful weapons in a Leader’s arsenal. But very frequently leaders either fail to deploy it or don’t know when and how to use it.
As a percentage of time, very little of the time in a day is when a leader comes across good news. Mostly it is issues, turf wars, disgruntled employees or customers, missed commitments from others that affect your company, unforeseen breakdowns etc. And that goes on relentlessly day after day. And many a times, in fact most often, a leader’s instinct is either to ‘find somebody to blame’ or to be the ‘leader’ and come up with the ‘right’ approach to the situation.
Both the approaches are severely flawed.
It is easy to find somebody to blame and analyze the situation so that ‘we learn a lesson’. But that is flawed as the easiest way in which people will not make any mistake is if they don’t do anything. Particularly anything that is new and innovative and anything that has even the slightest chance of failure. So if people feel, and even if one person is blamed for a ‘mistake’ the entire organization will learn very quickly from the lesson, people across the organization will learn that taking a risk is not a good idea and the best way to survive in the company is to ‘keep your head down’.
What a leader should do is focus completely on solving the situation by harnessing the power of the collective. If you found somebody to blame, then it becomes their job to solve the problem. Everybody else might take pity and ‘help’ this person get out of the hole, which will further ensure that the person will only feel more bitter and in turn blame everybody else for creating circumstances that forced him/her to make the purported mistake. They will not accept it as their problem. So focus completely on bringing everybody to solving the problem and unleash the most powerful weapon. Ask them “What do you think” we should do.
And ask the question without judgement, with openness and with an eagerness to learn. Chances are in this situation the person who was the proximate cause will say “I thought I messed up” and others will say “I could have done ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c’, to help the person so that we did not come to this situation”. The collective will come together to solve the problem. And the great thing is that you as a leader will just have to lean back and see it all unfold.
Similarly, much more often than it should be, a leader wants to show that s/he is the leader and has the answers to the problem. You don’t need to have the answers. More powerful the leader more aware they are that better answers are with other people. Their power as a leader is to create the environment to harness those. In almost any type of situation taking the time to ask “What do you think?” can be a powerful door opener to avenues of thought you never expected. And this could be deployed in almost any sphere as long as it is asked for in the right manner:
“Our sales in Australia have now declined for two quarters in a row, the sales team there is arrogant and and the presales organization does not want to work with them apart from a general weakness in demand in Australia. Should we change the sales leadership there?
“What do you think we should do?”
“We have this new product that we need to invest in but there is no budget for it this quarter. However, there is a running Proof of Concept that has been going on for six quarters now and although the engineering team is very excited, the prospects from sales look much bleaker than we had originally anticipated. Customers seem happy to engage in a POC but we can’t figure out how to monetize it. We can save some money from there and deploy it for this new idea. What should we do?
“What do you think?”
“We had a great year and the entire quality team really performed to meet the increased volume with no let-up in standards. The time for promotions and increments has come and if we recognize only a few and not the entire team it will break the tremendous sense of ‘teamwork’ with which the whole group has worked this year. What should we do here? Promote the entire team or keep them all back so that the team is together?
“What do you think?”
And once you get the answers, the leader absolutely does not need to respond with ‘Let me now teall you what I think?” Leader just needs to absorb for further thought and ask the person to go back and think some more and suggest on “What we should do”. 99% out of 100% the problem will solve itself. The leader will have to not do anything.
But as leaders, our predetermined proclivity is to ‘do something’. Don’t.
Ask “What do you think?”