“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
“What do you think?” One of the greatest leadership questions to build trust, understanding, and ownership. An invitation to others to intellectually engage with you.
The key is how and when to ask the question.
Compare the following scenarios:
1. “I have thought about how to resolve this challenge. You may have a better solution – what do you think?”
2. “My decision is to buy the equipment and move ahead. Do you agree?”
The first example represents a fair process, welcoming ideas before the final decision. This honors the value of perspective taking – realizing that an inclusive process is often more important than the decision itself. Experience confirms that when we embrace a fair process and engage together, we become personally invested and collectively own the decision. This is true even if individually we might have preferred a different direction.
In the second example the timing is very different. The leader has made the decision and the “Do you agree?” appears to be more challenging than welcoming. The sense is that the leader is selling a solution, and those who are impacted may not be buying.
Think of the survival exercises we have taken during team building programs. You are stranded in the desert with only a few supplies – what is your next move, what supplies are most important? Consistently the team decision is better than each individual, closer to what the survival experts tell us is the right decision.
How often do we fail to heed those around us in routine (as opposed to survival) decisions? More often than we realize. We rationalize this behavior by stating we did not have enough time, our team is too busy, or we are the only ones with the expertise. We make the decision and expect others to rally around us.
I recall an experience when I went alone on a key decision, and the price was painful. We were considering promoting an individual to a higher leadership role, and I was championing the candidate.
I pitched my recommendation to my boss and peers, followed by a “Do you agree?” Potential concerns were raised but my mind was already made up. I hired the candidate and soon realized my mistake. Eventually, we corrected my poor decision and I learned a valuable lesson. Ask first.
What does a fair process conversation look like?
• What are we trying to solve?
• Who have we not heard from?
• Do you think we should go in a different direction?
This process builds an atmosphere of trust, collaboration and accountability. What do you think leads to what do we think – a driver of successful execution.
Three keys to thinking through a fair process:
C.S. Lewis describes this as the people in the organization, with no formal titles or authority, who determine how things work. These are the thinkers we need to tap into. Who is in this ring at work and how do you tap into it? Subject matter experts, not those high on the organization chart, are often your best thought partners.
Avoid the trap of refutation mode – dismissing ideas before or after you ask what others think. That will not work. We tried that before. Ask what others think first, suspend judgement, and hear what you need to hear.
Balancing Data and Human Impact
Data is always important, yet the human perspective is critical. Spreadsheets provide information – people provide reality. Identify the key stakeholders, give them a voice, and understand the human impact of the decision.
The leaders we admire understand and apply this fair process. Their decision journey includes others, understanding they ultimately own the final decision and execution. The “do it yourself” approach may work for routine home maintenance, but it does not work when leading people. Ask the question we are all waiting for – “what do you think”?
All My Best,