The Power of Ask Over Tell

March 7th, 2015

How much time do we all spend telling? 
What would the impact be if we spent more time asking?

Why do we spend so much of our time as leaders telling other people what to do and how to do things and then wonder why we don’t have a team who can be innovative, provide solutions, work autonomously and take ownership?

As leaders is one of our greatest roles not to inspire, develop and challenge our teams to become the best they can be, to encourage them continue to develop and learn and give them the space to take responsibility, deliver outcomes and take some calculated risks?

How else will we tap into the potential of our team and support them to develop this potential, be creative, engaged, take responsibility for solutions and thrive?

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn” – Benjamin Franklin

To me this embodies the problem and solution to a lot of the issues I come across when working with leaders who know they need to stand back and focus more on the strategic development of the business, but find themselves constantly brought back into the day to day running of the business and wonder why fire fighting is the norm, and I have also experienced this myself.

Not only do people forget what they’re told, people’s creativity is often stifled or lost when being told and as, if not more importantly the responsibility lies with the person doing the telling.

When you tell someone what you would like them to do and how to do it, you take the responsibility for the outcome from them and if it goes wrong they can report back, but do not own solving the problem. You have held onto the responsibility and they will generally be happy to let you have the responsibility.

If however you engage people within your team to deliver an outcome, and support them to come up with the solution to deliver it, this raises their awareness, encourages their learning and they choose to take responsibility for delivering the outcome and solving any problems along the way.

Simple or so it seems, but how do you actually put this into practice – Using a coaching approach to leadership is one very powerful way and here are some very practical initial thoughts to try putting this into practice:-

  1. How you can be more aware of whether you are telling someone how to do something and giving answers and solutions to problems. Or alternatively explaining what needs to be achieved and why and then asking them how they could deliver this and delving deeper into the perceived problems to hear their potential solutions?
  2. As your awareness builds what impact would asking a question each time you are inclined to tell someone something or give the answer to a problem have on you and your colleagues?
  3. How can you be focused on the desired outcome and what this needs to deliver for the team and business when you are approaching the delegation of a task or project to your team or a team member?
  4. How would asking open ended questions help to ensure the understanding of the outcome and how your colleague or team understand the impact, importance and consequences of the outcome and how they plan to deliver these and what the potential obstacles could be and how they would tackle these?
  5. What impact are you having in terms of responsibility, each time you tell someone what to do or how to do it or tell your answer or give instructions? Are you are taking the responsibility for the outcome and potentially stifling , thought, creativity, development and innovation?
  6. How would ongoing quality communication and dialogue with your team which involves encouraging broader thinking and creativity in problem solving, avoid micro-management?
  7. What impact would allowing your team members to be able to lead a project have on developing their skills?. As the business leader do you need to be the leader of all your team need to deliver?

What stops leaders engaging with their teams like this, could it be..?

  1. The need to have and retain control
  2. Fear of failure, the leaders still feels responsible for the end outcome and everything
  3. Time pressure
  4. It’s how they were led and they don’t know another way
  5. The desire to “ help” which actually hinders
  6. The desire to retreat to a comfort zone

As with any change we make in life it is not easy to break habits and form new ones and it takes time, perseverance and practice to be able to take this approach more often.

It often helps to put ourselves in the shoes of others and to remember what it felt like when we were given the freedom to make decisions and take risks knowing what we had to deliver and excited by the prospect of doing so or of over achieving.

Why is it that as children all we do is ask, but as adults all we often do is tell?

Kirsty Bathgate is the founder of Gearing for Growth who work with growing businesses and leaders to support them to perform at their best, with less stress, better returns and more time for the important things in life.
Photo Tiffany Terry