The Effective Listening Leader

5 questions to ask your people in pursuit of greater effectiveness

[Download PDF version]: Li #175 The Effective Listening Leader

IN THEIR PURSUIT of effectiveness, many leaders neglect one of their greatest resources: The people who report to them, those they typically work with every day. Significant wisdom and help is right under their noses.

Here are two important definitions: Efficiency means “doing things right” (i.e., easier, faster, cheaper). Effectiveness means “doing the right things.” Both are necessary, but a moment’s reflection makes clear that it is possible to be efficiently doing the wrong thing. The battle for effectiveness is never-ending and must be leaders’ continual concern, personally and for their entire team.

Why is it such a challenge?

The usual problem is excessive busyness. Leaders often state that they simply “don’t have the time” to do this kind of analysis. They can’t jump off the hamster wheel long enough to invest the thinking time required. For a great many executives and managers, their jobs are simply out of control.

How can someone make strides in their personal effectiveness if they don’t even have time to think about it?

The leader’s need for feedback

Leaders are used to giving feedback to others, but they need it just as badly themselves. James Kouzes has written extensively on leadership. In an interview with Marshall Goldsmith, he commented:

“The one leadership behavior on which leaders score the lowest from the constituents' perspective is ‘He/she asks for feedback on how his/her actions affect other people's performance.’”

Kouzes goes on to observe:

“So we are the poorest in a behavior that is absolutely essential to leadership improvement. How can we expect to do better than we're now doing if we are not routinely asking others for feedback?”

Subordinates are keen observers of their bosses. After all, everything the boss does or doesn’t do affects them. They become intimately aware of their superior’s strengths, weaknesses, and habits.

Why don’t they speak up? The obvious answer is that far too many bosses let it be known that they aren’t interested in hearing it. But when the leader is truly looking for help ─ and it’s safe to speak ─ most team members can offer significant suggestions.

I want to propose five questions you can ask your team that I’ve learned from two of my favorite sources, Peter Drucker and Marshall Goldsmith. Applying these can make a quick difference toward greater effectiveness!

Questions to ask your team members

Schedule an individual meeting with each direct report, and provide the following questions in advance to allow for thought.

1. “What contribution from me do you require to make your contribution to the organization? When do you need this, how do you need it, and in what form?” (Drucker)

The essence of servant leadership is the philosophy that leadership is not simply telling people what to do. It is recognizing that the team’s success requires a leader who recognizes his role to facilitate the performance of many talented people.

In the knowledge-based economy in which we live and work today, it is not at all unusual for managers to oversee people who know much more about their field of work than their superior. Therefore, many leaders don’t even know what their subordinates need in order to do their jobs. You’ll only find out by asking.

2. “Are their cases where I need to get more involved and give you some more help?” (Goldsmith)

Managers can certainly micromanage and hinder subordinates from working effectively, but it can also be the other way around: Cases where the subordinate genuinely needs and wants the help of their superior. To be a helpful servant leader, you need to know where your help is desired. Again, you have to ask.

This enables you to fulfill some of the most important aspects of servant leadership, such as: 1) making sure they have the resources necessary to do their jobs; 2) the removal of obstacles and limitations, whether physical or organizational; and 3) providing teaching, training, and coaching.

3. “What are the contributions for which this organization and I, your superior, should hold you accountable? What should we expect from you? What is the best utilization of your knowledge and ability?” (Drucker)

I believe this is a major under-utilized concept. Most leaders and managers assume it is their job as the superior to know enough to assign everyone’s role wisely, along with specifying desired outcomes. But with talented knowledge workers, the leader is not likely to know all they are capable of doing. Therefore, the real talents and potential contributions of their people remain undiscovered.

There are times, to be sure, when the leader should outline expectations for employees, but don’t miss those occasions where the employee should collaborate in defining expectations and outcomes. You’ll often find, with talented, motivated, and mature people, that they sometimes think bigger and more ambitiously than you do. Bring them into the planning process, and they will impress you with their ingenuity and drive.

4. “Are there cases where I get too involved and can let go more?” (Goldsmith)

Here you are inviting your team member to assume greater autonomy while you step back. This is a relief and an encouragement to the employee, and also an opportunity for you to increase your own effectiveness by removing an unnecessary time-eater.

Keep in mind that you always have the right to determine how much autonomy a subordinate has on a given matter. Some issues are important and potentially impactful enough that you want to keep a regular, close eye on it. But certainly, many issues are not in that category. Give as much freedom as you can, using your own judgment regarding the importance of the issue and the capabilities of the subordinate.

5. “Do you ever see me working on tasks that someone at my level doesn’t need to do? Are there areas where I can help other people grow and develop, and give myself more time to focus on what I should personally do?” (Goldsmith)

Try these questions out on your team and you will be pleasantly surprised. They will come up with some great suggestions, all pointing to how you can become more effective. Your team will help you define and work more “at the top of your license”; that is, the highest and best application of you toward your most important objectives. And keep in mind that if you are leader, time to lead, serve, and listen to your people is an important part of that zone.

Much managerial resistance to asking questions like these stems from the old assumption that employees don’t want to work, and that it is the job of management to make them do it. That view is outdated and unrealistic. People want to devote their energies to meaningful work, and they are highly motivated by having autonomy, the freedom to create, and a sense of making progress toward goals that matter.

Most mature employees I’ve known can readily describe where their managers are involved in details and tasks beneath their proper role, and are ready and willing to step up. They know that having a leader who is free to concentrate at the top of their license is the best thing for the entire team.

This kind of collaboration between an effective servant leader and his or her team is a powerful dynamic that leads to significant achievement. Try asking these questions and see what you and your team can come up with. Li

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