We are listening to a typical Monday management meeting. Joe gives his update. He makes statements.
He expresses himself in business clichés such as ‘at the end of the day, we’ll make our numbers’. Then he looks to Cheryl. Cheryl accepts the baton and copies Joe. Statement, overview, statement, clichéd statement close. Pass the baton.
I’m watching the CEO. He’s doodling. Joe, now relieved of his update, is texting and motioning as to how important what he is doing is with an apologetic smile. There is no brain power at work understanding the meaning of anything that is being said at this kind of merry go round meeting.
Ross, who is always concerned about something, makes a statement about Cheryl’s statement. Everyone looks up. She defends her position. He defends his position. Vic, the CEO is looking frustrated. He asks a closed question: “So, who is right?”
Vic’s management team look at each other and then down at their notes. There is a clearing of throats.
We, the consultants, hold up our hands. “Hold on. Where will the question of “who is right” take you, Vic? What do you hope to get out of asking that question?
The CEO looks at us. Then instead of reacting to our question, he pauses. “Yeah, I guess I’m just looking for relief from the blame game and what that question will do is just escalate it won’t it?” He looks for confirmation. Instead of answering him, we shepherd his focus over to his team. They look at us and then back at Vic. Cheryl speaks up. “Yes it will. That’s why none of us could answer it. We don’t want the blame.”
We make a suggestion to Vic. “Vic you could ask an open ended question such as: “Ross, what did you really want from that statement you made about Cheryl’s update?”
Vic nods and restates it in his way. He relaxes into his chair. Instantly, the tension noticeably vanishes from his face.
Ross watches his boss. His mouth slides into a wry smile. “I guess what I said should have been a question, not a statement. I get it. I started the blame game rolling. What I really want to know is, I’m hearing Cheryl’s update and I don’t know what it means for my area. My mind took off in a hundred directions. I mean, what kind of impact is this marketing change going to have on operations? Was I going to be included in that conversation? Busted… I mean, I see how I set myself up because I thought, I mean, I made the assumption she was going to leave me out of the discussion and I got mad. I got mad at my own assumption and projected it on to Cheryl’s update.” Ross sighed. “I see we do that a lot around here.” Everyone nodded, agreeing with Ross’ insights.
Vic smiled and shook his head as he caught our eye. This is a momentous day in the life of Vic’s company. He and his team have invested the time to learn how to get out of their own way, by cleaning up their limiting communication and decision making habits. It’s starting to pay off.
Cheryl, now aware of what Ross is concerned about looks at us. Then we see a light bulb go on over her head. “Questions, right? Open ended questions.” Cheryl’s smile can change the atmosphere in an entire room when she’s feeling on purpose. “Ross, I’m hearing concern about our new marketing strategy. What is your concern?” There was no sign of her earlier defensiveness. Only genuine curiosity and eagerness to learn in an atmosphere filled with goodwill.
Open questions, authentic exchanges, rather than updates and statements are critical to get the right conversations started. It’s not the update that is important, it’s the impact of the changes that has to be discussed. When impacts aren’t examined, surprises show up that derail productivity, profitability and performance. And surprises start the blame game merry go round.
Every company needs to have people who have the skill sets that can get to the heart of what ails and propels a business forward. It only takes one person to ask the open question for everyone to get off the merry go round.
Ross and Cheryl and the rest of the team can now deal with the change in processes that will be needed in operations when Marketing shifts gears. Having this kind of conversation, without the threat of blame hanging over anyone builds a high performance team who can deal with business problems.
This is the kind of conversation that fuels growth. If you go to your next meeting and notice that people are not using open questions to guide the exploration of the business impact, then you and your team need to learn new communication methods so you can break the cycle.
Have a read of Fast Company’s article on how to ask great questions. Then you can help your team get off the merry go round and get back to working your business.
What’s the number one habit you’ll have to give up to get these profit inducing, productivity increasing and high performance conversations? The need to show others that you are right. You have to give up needing to show everyone that you guessed it, you had the answer, your idea will do the trick. Stop. Needing. To Be. Right. It’ll kill your business.