Sunday 27 October 2013

Slow and steady win the race : How asking yourself the right questions at the right time can help you make better decisions during a critical conversation!

Let me start with an incident from fifteen years ago to give some context. I was in a review with my manager and a group of peers over two days. We reached an agenda item on new projects at which point my manager advised that we would be working on a change management initiative arising from a restructuring. He gave us some background and outlined the business case but I felt myself wanting to voice my concerns. I was gearing up to use words like “ill conceived” and “out of sync with ground reality”, when I realised that in my last appraisal my manager had asked me to think about issues in a different way and before challenging solutions or “rebelling on cue” always ask a simple question – “If I was the boss what would I do? How would I approach the issue under review?”

As I sat through the review, I realised that this simple question was forcing me to listen more carefully and to calibrate any contribution to ensure that my input was solution oriented and future focused. As the discussion progressed I found myself opening up to the reality i.e. the need for change that was looming in front of us. By the end of the discussion I was aligned and we then moved on to the execution phase. A few months later I got kudos from my manager when we achieved a positive result arising from the change. So what happened to turn things around? Frankly, nothing! A simple question seeded during a performance appraisal had forced me to think and react differently.

Some readers can argue that perhaps I need to learn to manage my emotions better and improve my mind-set. The reality is that most people are emotional but some manage it or control it or hide it better than others! I believe that understanding that emotions are relevant is relevant (yes, the play on words is intended) and I share a welcome notion from Susan David and Christina Congleton in support of this – “The prevailing wisdom says that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place at the office: Executives, and particularly leaders, should be either stoic or cheerful; they must project confidence and damp down any negativity bubbling up inside them. But that goes against basic biology. All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.”

We are used to spending an inordinate amount of time scripting our discussions with others but spend very little time scripting (or even thinking) about the internal conversation that we need to have when engaged in a critical conversation where your input is being actively solicited. I have learnt during my corporate journey that giving advice or using good questions with others (when they are facing a crisis) is far easier than doing the same for yourself when you are the one facing a crisis!

I am not going to talk about esoteric questions designed to motivate you and allow you to energetically pump your fist in the air! There are many sources for finding questions that will help you remain motivated and focused on personal growth. These questions typically take the form of any one of the following:

  • What am I grateful for?
  • How was I challenged?
  • What made me laugh?
  • How did I grow?
[As an aside, I recommend you read ‘What to ask the person in the mirror’ by Robert Kaplan on developing leadership skills by self-questioning.]

I am focusing on developing a different talent i.e. the skill of interrogating and directing your own thought process by a series of meaningful questions when you find yourself being driven to provide a solution for a problem during a crucial conversation or discussion.

My first input is - Don’t rush into things. Take some time to walk yourself through the questions (detailed below) that are designed to improve your understanding of the situation, evaluate options available, gather the necessary detail required to respond to the challenge, ensure that you minimise “emotional noise” during a solution-oriented thought process. Also critical is the realisation that humans have built-in cognitive biases that naturally kick-in when we are processing information and data. These need to be actively managed and accounted for. The ones that I believe as being particularly negative and can lead to irrational decisions includes any knee-jerk reaction to the situation, the notion that delaying a decision will improve the decision, illusion of being in more control than you really are, looking for information that confirms your view of the world (confirmation bias) and rejecting what does not fit etc. I am not proposing complicated tools to eliminate or mitigate cognitive bias as that would be beyond my technical ability but what I can offer is gleaned from watching great leaders in action who have developed a thought process that uses 'smart' questioning reflecting an internal check-list of sorts designed to deliver better outcomes (all while thinking on their feet!).

The following is my interpretation of those natural and intuitive questions that I believe we must use and master for ongoing professional growth! 

I am grouping my input into three categories:

Category 1 : Questions to ask yourself to ensure that you are clear on what is being discussed or asked or told:

  • Did I practice active listening?
  • Did I give the other person ample opportunity to provide input or context?
  • Did I ask clarifying questions to ensure that I gained an overall if not total understanding of the situation?
  • Did I seek a solution or opinion from the other person(s) to understand the maturity level of the thought process and debate (before it got to you)? [This allows you to move your thought process to a higher level of meaningfulness and contribution].
  • Did I spend enough time in understanding the missing elements of the picture being drawn/sketched out? [Did you manage to reach an understanding of what you don’t know rather than what you know?].

Category 2 : Questions to ask yourself before you provide a solution or judgement:

  • What would the desirable outcome look like? Are we aiming for cost reduction or productivity improvement or process change or aiming to avoid a negative outcome or aiming to achieve a positive outcome etc.
  • What key things will need to happen to make any solution work?
  • Would this solution find favour with management? (Whether you like it or not this is critical. You are working for others and not working for yourself)
  • What kind of support would be needed to implement my view-point? Would we be able to garner the same? 
  • If I were implementing this as a manager how would I want my sub-ordinates to support the process? [There is an element of planning for managing upwards involved in this].
  • Does my thought process reflect emotional agility? Have I conscientiously worked on keeping emotions from guiding my judgement or solution by displaying emotional awareness?
Category 3 : Questions to ensure that the solution or outcome provided by you is positive and forward looking:
  • What is my level of comfort with the solution or outcome being provided? Did I consider all options available?
  • Would my solution or contribution to the discussion provoke thinking and adoption of the change or would it provoke push-back?
  • Have I considered how my input will contribute to creative action and engagement by others?
  • How much time did I spend on looking at the past (problem oriented thought process that is grounded in the past) rather than seeking to understand the future state (solution oriented thought process aiming to create a positive future)?
  • Could I imagine the future state of where I want to be and is my proposal helping in moving towards that future or is it still focused on the past? 
I honestly believe that working through these questions during a critical conversation will deliver dividends as adopt them slowly in your repertoire!

Good luck.


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