More Asking, Less Telling

How you talk to your employees matters

Back Web Only Apr 2, 2015 By Tania Fowler

Quality communication goes far beyond organizational structures, clear directives and efficient systems. Time and again, I’ve watched highly effective teams crumble due to a lack of effective dialogue. And that’s because the most successful way to engage and improve your company is not by talking. It’s by listening.

One of the unconscious strategies I witness in business leaders and teams is a strong tendency to get to the quick answer, give directives or refuse to engage in dialogue that may reveal problems. It’s easier to just give someone the answer, make decisions for them, ignore problems or just step in and do it yourself. Yet such strategies have costs to businesses that go unmeasured.

Self-starters and innovators take a frustrated back seat when they’re told how to solve a problem or rejected in their attempts to solve them. When this happens, companies lose valuable creative thinking that could save them serious money and buy them a competitive edge. Sometimes telling is necessary and cost appropriate, but if giving directions is the only tool in your toolkit, you may want to consider the cost.

Here’s an example: negative telling. One executive I know of is regularly known to say, “No excuses, just get it done.” Said often enough, the message gets through loud and clear: ‘I don’t want to hear additional information because I don’t want to be bothered with your struggles or accountable for the problem.’

First, the problem with the ‘no excuses’ message is that it shuts down communication while ramping up negativity. Think of the last time you felt shut down; how inspired were you to do something constructive?

Second, and perhaps most importantly, what if the person can’t get the job done effectively because real systemic issues within the organization are creating problems? Shouldn’t pervasive problems be addressed somewhere in the company, and wouldn’t that somewhere be at or near the top? In this day and age, employees are expected to do a lot more with a lot less and accountability at the top for results, other than financial, seems to be waning. If the offhand management message is ‘no excuses,’ it’s possible that people who have innovative ideas for fixing systemic problems and organizational inefficiencies might not be willing to share their ideas for fear of being told, “No excuses just get it done.”

Special people who want to help a company succeed will start to look elsewhere to make an appreciated impact. Businesses cannot afford to lose the very people who want to help. People won’t stop thinking, but a leader’s actions can help them stop performing.

Ask more questions of the people who work for you. Be open to hearing their ideas and concerns. A leader must look at their own communication style honestly and recognize how they may be contributing to employee frustration. The real learning lies in the analysis of the situation, not necessarily the answer.

Here are three ways you can improve your listening skills to bolster team communication:

• Believe that all conversations are vitally important. When people feel that you believe in their abilities and are truly interested in their input, they feel energized to create and make a difference on your behalf.

• Ask open-ended questions. “How might you go about solving this problem? … What is the problem you want help with? … What can you do here? … What might be some unintended consequences?” (Caution: asking a question like, “Don’t you think we should try…?” is a leading question and can yield answers you want to hear rather than honest answers.)

• Listen with curiosity. Listening with curiosity means being genuinely engaged with the other person and in what they are trying to say. Curious listening leads you to the next impactful question which can then take you on a richer journey of problem solving. Start asking questions in place of telling. Notice if you become less embroiled in putting out fires and, instead spend more time actually focused on getting stuff done.

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