Want to empower others? Stop giving answers.

Good question. I’ll explain. Just keep reading! Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

With the vast majority of entrepreneurial clients I work with, the leadership team and managers spend most of their time dealing with “difficult” people. They wonder how they can get more from their team, how they feel like they can’t “let go” and delegate, and how it’s hard to get employees to care as much as they do.

Yes. It’s hard to run a business, it’s hard to get the most out of your team. But, it’s not as hard to empower and inspire your staff and engage them in a way that brings out their best gifts as you may think.

Leaders are often looked to as the people that have all the answers. They’ve figured it out. They know things, that’s why they are leading. Empowerment, however, does not exist in having the answers. Empowerment comes from having the right questions.

Albert Einstein was once asked what he would do if he was given the world’s toughest problem and only an hour to solve it. He said he would spend the first 55 minutes coming up with the right question, because if he knew the right question, he would get the right answer.

Managing and leading others is much the same. If the toughest problem you’re facing in your business is empowering your team to give their best effort, solve problems, and be more active and productive, Einstein’s method is the path to addressing that problem.

The context

Mike is a hard nosed New Yorker who talks tough and has 30 years of experience in the manufacturing industry. You wouldn’t want to go toe to toe with Mike. He has a big frame, an intimidating voice, and a thick NY accent. Underneath this foreboding exterior is a man with a soft spot who cares deeply about the wellbeing of the people he manages. In our many conversations, he inevitably tears up anytime he and I discuss his employees, and how difficult it has been for them as they implement a new software system. The implementation has been a nightmare. His staff are crying in his office, and it’s breaking morale.

In a one hour meeting with Mike, he noted that by the end of our meeting he had 19 emails of “fires” he was going to have to go and fix. He was lamenting how hard it was for him to step away because he needed to be there and solve all these problems. His staff needed him. They couldn’t do it alone, and they needed Mike to come and solve the problems. With his 30 years of experience, Mike has all the answers.

For those who are a bit younger, this is a manual shifter. Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash

The shift.

As a leader in his company, Mike is responsible for the outcome, for driving results, and for knowing how to create those results. Mike knowing all the answers, however, perpetuates the problem. As the great W. Edwards Demming pointed out, “The system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it is producing.” The path that’s been created — Mike has all the answers and we need him to solve the problem — perpetuates the challenge and disempowers the employees.

A recent Gallup study indicated that 87% of employees are disengaged at work. 87%!!! That’s 1 in 10 that is actually engaged. That is a staggering number. One of the culprits is the system of “leaders needing to have the answers.” Solving everyone’s problems is not leadership. It is a tool for superiority, not for empowerment or engagement. It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem. This approach leads to burnout, frustration, and disengages employees.

Great leadership in an organization creates environments where employees have the capacity and authority to create change wherever they are in the organization. In this sense, leadership builds capacity for employees and invites them into the change.

If we’re always providing the answer, the people around us have created mental pathways that indicate us as the solution to the problems. If we ask questions, inviting employees and colleagues to think for themselves, then we create new neural pathways that pull out wisdom, knowledge, and creativity from the people around us. This approach not only creates new neural pathways, but it also reduces the amount we are needed over time.

*Side note: In order to see the system differently, a great question is: What is my contribution to the very thing I complain about?

The impact.

Just like the investing phrase — you have to spend money to make money — , if you want more time, you have to spend time to get time. It takes time to cultivate and empower employees. It’s teaching without giving the answers. In the long run, you have employees/colleagues that have learned how to think, how to solve problems, and how to empower themselves. This approach not only reduces the amount of time spent dealing with employee and colleague issues, it increases productivity, time to think about your own work, and innovative thinking within an organization.

See, look, this picture proves it’s better. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Here’s how it plays out…

An employee or colleague comes to you for an answer — “What’s the process for shipping this product?” More often than not, we answer the question. Look in this folder, go to this document, it’s begins with checking the serial number… etc. But what if we simply shifted and asked, “Where might you have access to that information?” Or, my personal favorite, “What do you think it might be?” (Note: tone matters with that question. That can be a great coaching question, or it can be construed as condescending and snarky). By asking the question, the invitation to think shifts the whole paradigm. It might be off-putting at first, and you may get some funny looks, but the whole dynamic of the conversation shifts to something more connected and meaningful for both. You transform into teacher, and they transform into thinkers.

Having the right questions.

These questions don’t need to be profound. It’s not about asking the perfect question, it’s about asking a question at all. Here’s some things to think about when attempting this approach to leadership:

  1. Are the questions I’m asking open and inviting? It’s best to stray away from yes/no questions, better to ask questions that invite thinking. When, where, what, or how are often better words to start with. How might this be done? What do you think the answer might be? Where can you find that information? When have you witnessed this work done before? 
    For a great resource on questions, check out Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown and David Isaacs’ (creators of the World Cafe) thoughts in their seminal work the Art of Powerful Questions.
  2. Is this question leading to thinking? Sometimes, the questions we ask are more about us and what we know — steering questions — as opposed to questions that are in the service of others. The purpose of the question needs to focus on engaging the other person to think. If we provide the answer in the question, then we’re still answering without really asking anything. For example, “Did you check the manual?” I gave the answer. It’s in the manual. AND, it was a yes/no question. Switching the question to “Where might you find that information?” moves from giving the answer to asking a thinking question.
  3. What are my own motivations? When asking these questions, if they are genuine in seeking better engagement and thinking from your employees/colleagues, the results will be there. If the attempt is disingenuous, rushed, or not in service to your colleague, then it will come across as those very things and likely fail.

What can I do?

In my 15+ years of working with leaders in all industries, the greatest leaders have an ability and desire to ask questions and pull great thinking and engagement out of others. It has never been the case where the leader knew everything and only had answers. That mindset leads the other direction — not to greatness, but — to disengagement, burnout, and spinning wheels.

A challenge we can all take on is seeking more opportunities to ask questions, to invite others into thinking. Find a colleague that asks you questions all the time, and try the method. You won’t only change the dynamic and empower them, but you might just learn something valuable about yourself along the way.

Thanks to those that inspire! Dane Sanders, Darius Foroux, Tom Kuegler.