Dani Robbins

The One Question All Leaders Should Ask

In Leadership on April 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm

At least once a week, I wish I could go back in time and apologize to a board or staff member for something I previously did.  I see my younger self in every client, every case and every workshop.  I’ve been working in this field for over 20 years and I’ve learned a lot of lessons in that time, many of them the hard way.

The thing I’d like to apologize for this week is not ending every meeting with every staff member I’ve ever supervised with this question: “Do you have what you need to be successful?”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

Imagine the doors that one question opens.  It allows staff to ask for more information.  It allows me to confirm staff have the information, the tools and the resources they need.  It’s the question that opens the door to them coming back, and to me feeling confident they won’t have to.

It’s the question that allows them to say: “No, actually….  I don’t understand this assignment.” “I need more information.” “I need more stuff.” “I need more staff.” “I need more time.”

If you ask the question and you get an honest answer, you still may not be able to provide what your team member is requesting.  Even if that’s the case, they will feel heard, and you will know what they feel like they need to be successful, in case you didn’t know before.  In either case, it’s an educate-able moment to explain and perhaps negotiate a resolution everyone can understand, even if they don’t love.

Now I’m quite confident that even if I had asked the question, and even if I had gotten the answer yes, things might have still gone awry.  But I’m also confident it would have happened less often.

I didn’t know to ask.  When I was a new manager, I didn’t understand that there were people who wouldn’t tell me they didn’t understand the instructions.  They would walk away and try to do what I wanted, without really understanding what I wanted.  As you might imagine, it didn’t always end well.

I move fast.  You move fast.  Sometimes I, maybe like you, have talked in half information, which for most staff is just enough to start, but not always enough to successfully finish an assignment.  And I, maybe like you, have had staff that were intimidated to come and ask for clarification.  And I’m sure that I, maybe like you, have lost my patience when I thought I had explained what I needed, yet not gotten what I wanted.

What if I would have asked the question?  What if my people would have answered honestly?

Now let’s be clear: This one question alone won’t change the culture of an office.  It won’t fill the gap created by a lack of systems; it won’t magically transform a bad hire into a star, or turn a bad manager into a good one.

What it will do is build confidence on both sides of the table, build rapport, build a tradition of team work, and an expectation that your team can ask for what they need, and that you will try to get it for them.  It says “I trust you. I am here for you. I believe in you.”

9 words, only one of which is more than one syllable, and it’s huge!

What’s been your experience?  Have you ever asked this question?  Has anyone ever asked you?  As always, I welcome your experience and insight.

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