There are two times when leaders should ask a question during a meeting: First, when we don’t know the answer and need to find out. Second, when we know the answer and want others to hear it so we can drive home a point.
The first one is pretty straightforward. What’s driving the sales numbers in Phoenix? Why do you believe this deal will help our overall business? Where are we going for lunch?
We often discover trouble with the second one, however, because it’s so easy to get wrong. But with some intentional thought, it can help us solve problems before they grow into culture-killers.
You’ve probably heard that trial lawyers are advised not to ask a witness on the stand a question unless they know what the witness will say. The point is that the lawyer doesn’t want to be surprised by new facts in the middle of the trial. The lawyer wants to control the narrative for his or her client’s advantage.
The same is true when we’re leading a meeting.
“Who wants to share a fun story about working with Jane?”
Let me give you an example based on a true story: A leader called his team of about 20 people together. “We’re excited to announce that Jane is getting a promotion!” he said. Everyone cheered. Jane was a popular among her peers and had a reputation for excellence in her work. She deserved the promotion. When the applause died down, the leader asked a question: “Who wants to share a fun story about working with Jane?”
After the awkward pause had taken hold, a few people spoke up and talked about how they appreciated that Jane never missed deadlines and how well she kept others informed about the status of projects. One person said he appreciated Jane’s “heart” for others.
Everyone liked Jane, so she wasn’t the problem. The problem was in the words “fun story.” This team leader was all about speed and execution, two of the most important components of the company’s competitive advantage. But in pushing people to execute, execute, execute, he had created a culture that sucked most of the fun out of everyone’s work. And his request for “fun” stories simply drove home that reality for everyone in the room. It was a real balloon-popper.
For this leader, of course, the problems were deeper than the fact that he asked a leading question without knowing the answer. But if he had thought through the question and the possible answers, he not only might have avoided the awkward team meeting, but he could have identified a significant problem with the team’s culture.
Here’s the takeaway: Regularly play the what-if game by asking yourself some challenging questions that might produce awkward answers from your team. What if I asked my team to share a story about our team’s energy? Or about how our team lives out our purpose? Or about a time when they’ve felt most alive because of their work? Or about the positive impact the company has had on their personal and professional lives? Or about how they enjoy their work? Or about how they have impacted someone’s life in a positive way?
Would they answer quickly and with confidence, or would they struggle to find an example? And would they offer the types of examples you would like to hear?
Then ask follow-up questions. Why would they say that? Why would they think that? Go at least five “whys” deep.
This exercise won’t give you solid answers, but it will put you on a path toward finding them. It will help you look for and spot warning signs, give you clues and insights about the people on your team, and help you know what to ask people in one-on-one conversations. Those answers, in turn, will help you address the very real problems you weren’t seeing before. So, for example, if no one on your team is having fun at work, you can identify the problem and take steps to strengthen that part of the culture. Then you can ask for a “fun story” with confidence that the celebratory balloons won’t pop in your face.
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