Yesterday I had a call with the practice manager of one of my clients. She is young and super smart and eager to learn but she was making a very common mistake when correcting her staff. She was telling instead of asking.
You may wonder how you are supposed to discipline someone you have caught in a mistake without telling them what it was. Believe me it is possible and more effective in getting the results you seek.
The problem with “telling” is in human brain response it is the equivalent of an “attack”. When we are attacked our brain immediately goes into a “freeze, flee or fight” response. Our adrenal glands pump us full of adrenaline in seconds flat technically preparing us to run or fight, and our logical “smart brain” goes on lockdown. Our rational decision making is abandoned for the emotional defense mode of the limbic response and we can’t think sensibly.
When we instead choose to ask questions, we are removing that feeling of being attacked and asking for explanations. Questions allow others to share the thought processes behind their actions or beliefs.
It is the rare person who intentionally sets out to screw up. Most people believe what they are doing is the best course of action at the time. Typically, this works out…but on occasion, that person’s “process” and the one we desire are out of sync.
In the book Crucial Conversations, the Art of Inquiry is discussed as one of the primary skills that successful people have leading to high career achievements. These folks are actually able, through asking the right questions in a non-judgmental manner, to call their boss out on a mistake…and not get fired or have negative repercussions. It is all about asking questions that force people to reveal their error to themselves. This “discovery” is sticky and very effective in manifesting change over traditional methods. It can also show a flaw in your training process that allowed this deviation.
Asking questions can also keep you from telling yourself a false story about the circumstances surrounding the mistake. For example: You have a team member who seems lazy and reluctant to perform certain duties. Our mind starts to develop this “Joe is lazy” story. So, we call Joe in and say, “it has come to my attention that you are not doing tasks a, b and c. These are part of your duties. Since you are not performing a, b and c, I am writing you up and giving you 30 days to improve.” Joe feels attacked unjustly so any warning is now considered by him to be unfair. He begins to tell himself the story that the business doesn’t care about him or the truth so why should he perform any better for people who are so disrespectful. Nothing gets accomplished.
On the other hand, we call Joe in to the office and ask, “Joe are you struggling to complete task a, b and c? Is there any reason for this and is there something you need from us to help you work to the level you are capable of?” This is an open-ended question that will allow Joe to tell you his side of the story.
By making a simple change of approach we are more likely to find the root cause of the problem and address it with an appropriate response. Instead of assuming malintent we assume the best of people. The vast majority of people will step up and improve and if not, chances are they are a hiring mistake.
So, give it a try. Pause and formulate your questions and see if you don’t learn how to help your team succeed.