To Lead More Effectively, Learn To Ask Courageous Questions

As a leader, the best thing you can do for your followers is to not allow them to settle.

You want your followers to own the facts that they have a choice, that their mindsets drive everything, and that their performance is a reflection of those choices and mindsets. If you can do that, then you really do know what you are doing and you will help move your organization toward a culture of responsibility. These three areas will help your followers responsibly solve most challenges they will face:

1) Choices

Too many or too few choices can make it hard to know how to choose correctly.

Here's the deal for your followers: they and they alone are responsible for the choices they make. Your job is to talk about that, to blog about it, and to help them understand that we all have choices, and that those choices are solely the responsibility of the chooser. When they come to you with a challenge or concern, ask them what they believe their choices are. Challenge them to carefully consider the full range of choices they have available to them. Do not allow them to negate or avoid the consideration of choices that seem impractical or illogical at first glance. Make certain that they understand that as long as they are alive, they have choices.

Never, ever, ever let them say or believe for even a second that they have no choice in something. Coach them to consider the intended and unintended consequences of their choices. Ask them what else they think could happen if they make the decision they are considering. Challenge them to clearly think through their decisions and to pause to reflect.

Ask them to walk you through their thought processes and how they believe the choices they are considering will impact the goals and outcomes they are charged with achieving.

2) Attitudes and Mindsets

Attitudes and mindsets are critical. To what extent are you driving, encouraging and requiring your followers to improve their mindsets all the time? How much of your followers' performance reviews are focused on their attitudes and the behaviors those attitudes create? Clearly explaining and working with your followers to create the attitudes and mindsets necessary for success is very important.

Ask your followers questions like: What would you have to believe in order to solve this problem? What other ideas do you have for being able to be more effective? What have you done in the past to deal with problems like this? When you are faced with challenges like this, what is your strategy for working it out? If I wasn't here to talk about this and you had to make a decision alone, what decision would you make?

All of those questions will get people to start thinking about their attitudes. Remember that attitudes always manifest themselves in choices and those choices drive behavior.

3) Performance

Choices and attitudes/mindsets are all well and good, but let's face it--you are in the results business. Results are the direct outcome of the choices we make and the attitudes we have. The purest kind of responsibility-based conversation includes clear expectations followed by excuseless discussion of results. The courageous elements of your leadership will manifest themselves most fully in the questions that you ask regarding performance. Your questions are critical to building a high-performance culture. To help direct your followers to accepting responsibility for their performance, you could ask: What did you do or not do that led to these results? If you could turn back the clock, what would you do more or less of? Of the things over which that you had control, which do you think contributed to this success/failure?

In our work with leadership teams, we often encourage the use of accountability partners to ask each other these sorts of questions. These partners are simply two people who agree to get together twice a month to talk about their goals and their progress. The idea started years ago when my brother, Corey, and I got together for dinner and began talking about our frustration with the lack of progress we were experiencing in our jobs. We started getting together for dinner once a week and simply asking each other questions about the goals we had set the previous week. The meetings were not designed to make us feel bad or to catch each other failing, but rather to get us to adopt mindsets of execution and performance. The first few weeks, we saw some minor progress. Over time, our questioning skills sharpened and with each passing week, the questions we asked were tougher. Consequently, our accomplishments became bigger and quicker-paced.

There is absolutely no way your followers can accomplish what they need to accomplish and learn to accept responsibility if you don't develop the habit of asking big, clear, direct questions delivered in an I-want-you-to-win tone. Your team deserves a leader who is courageous enough to ask and ask often. Like Corey and I, you will get better at this as you practice it, and you will see the results improve over time.

Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Remember to look at all of your choices and all of their possible consequences. Encourage your followers to do the same.
  • Take a few minutes to think about the attitudes/mindsets that you want to see manifested in your area of influence. Make certain that your expectations for your followers' attitudes are clear and concise.
  • Evaluate the extent to which you ask good questions on a scale of 0 to 10. Practice using questions to challenge your followers to accept responsibility for their performances.
  • Consider finding an accountability partner, or having your followers pair up into accountability teams.
  • Talk about choices, attitudes, mindsets, and performance all the time, everywhere.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Leadership Isn't for Cowards: How to Drive Performance by Challenging People and Confronting Problems by Mike Staver. Copyright (c) 2012 by Mike Staver. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

[Image: Flickr user Marion Doss]

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