Humble Inquiry – How to build trust by asking instead of telling

inquiryAs a leader, do you spend more time asking or telling?

In the United States, we have a culture of “Do” and “Tell”.  We value task accomplishment more than relationship building.  It is a cultural bias that many of us have.  Many people in a supervisory or managerial role spend most of their time telling others what we think they need to know to get a job done, rather than asking for their input.

Status in most workplaces is gained by task accomplishment.  We are recognized and rewarded for getting things done.  Indeed, one of the most significant factors that determines whether someone is promoted or given more responsibility is the ability to complete work assignments.

In some cases, a mostly “tell” approach is all that is required to get a task accomplished.  Some examples include situations where the work is straightforward or where the employee is inexperienced.  These interactions are characterized by almost exclusively one-way communication.  While we can get work done using a telling approach, it does very little to build relationships.

There is a significant amount of interdependence in today’s workplace. We need effective communications and good relationships to be successful in completing complex tasks. To build these relationships, we need a different technique other than simply “telling.”

In this article, we compare the strategy of telling with one that is centered on a specific kind of asking known as humble inquiry.   We will learn that this attitude is critical for improving communications, developing relationships, and building trust.

The notion of humble inquiry was originally developed and explained by Edgar Schein.  He defines humble inquiry as:

“…asking questions to which you do not already know the answer; building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

The strategy of asking by using humble inquiry is especially critical for facilitating an effective safety conversation. Many safety conversations that are initiated by people in authority are missing this key attribute. Unless you are willing to ask questions from a basis of genuine care for the employee, you will not build trust.

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Active Listening is Hard Work

active listeningHarry couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  It was shift change. Rob was leaving the locker room and headed toward the operating floor. His colorful athletic shoes were in stark contrast to the soiled and well-worn boots of the other guys around him.

Rob gave a slight nod of his head as he approached Harry, one of the shift supervisors.

“Hey, Harry.  Did the machine run well on first shift?  I sure hope I’m not walking into a mess in there.  After last week, I was hoping for a routine day at work.”

Harry wasn’t in the mood for small talk.  He just pointed down at Rob’s shoes and asked abruptly, “Speaking of walking, what are you thinking?  You know everyone is required to wear steel-toed shoes.  No exceptions!”

“Oh, those,” Rob countered, a little taken aback by Harry’s tone. “Let me explain…”

Harry interrupted him.  “No explanation needed.  It’s black and white.  Either you are wearing the right shoes or not.  And those are definitely NOT work shoes!”

“I know that,” Rob responded, the volume of his voice rising to match Harry’s. “I was just going to…”

Harry raised his hand and stopped Rob again.  “Look, you’re not going anywhere near the operating floor with those on your feet.  So either borrow a pair of shoes – or go home and get some proper foot protection – ‘cause you are not working today unless you have them.”

Rob crossed his arms and glared at Harry.  “Can you take one minute and listen?”

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Four ways to successfully engineer change

Cengineer changehange is hard.  Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge.  However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.

I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard.  I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled.  Instead, he backed up first.  Then, he slowly accelerated forward.  By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed.  As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car.  When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.

By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars.  If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time.  The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.

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Five Ways to Get Useful Feedback

FeedbackAll of us know about the importance of giving and receiving feedback.  If the goal is improved behavior or performance, effective and timely feedback is essential.  Most of what we read on this topic is focused on how to give feedback.  There is considerably less advice on how to get useful feedback from others.

Most of us are not well equipped to receive feedback in a way that encourages people to be truthful.  The person giving the feedback can easily be dissuaded from sharing the truth with you.  The difference between receiving qualified feedback versus unvarnished feedback is determined by your reactions to the person who is giving the feedback.  Without an honest assessment, it is difficult to change our personal behaviors that target our weaknesses.

Peter Bergman recently summarized some key actions that the receiver of feedback can take which will significantly increase the likelihood that the feedback will be useful.  According to Bergman, there are five ways that we can improve the way that we receive feedback.

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Do you find Joy in your work?

JoyIt’s a sad truth about the workplace: Just 30% of employees are actively committed to doing a good job.

According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 50% of employees merely put their time in, while the remaining 20% act out their discontent in counterproductive ways.  These employees are negatively influencing their coworkers, missing days on the job, and driving customers away through poor service. Gallup estimates that the 20% group alone costs the U.S. economy around half a trillion dollars each year.

What’s the reason for the widespread employee disengagement? According to Gallup, poor leadership is a key cause.

Richard Sheridan, Founder of Menlo Innovations, describes an antidote for this lack of enthusiasm.  He claims that “joy” is what is missing from the workplace.  In a recent interview, Sheridan spoke about some of the ways that he purposely designed joy into the way that people work.

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How can I help? The primary question of a servant leader

Help is on the way

“How can I help?”

In what situation are you likely to hear someone ask this question?  Perhaps an associate in a retail clothing store would use this phrase to offer some assistance.  You could hear this phrase from a librarian while  looking for a book or reference.  Maybe you have called a customer service number to ask about a recent purchase.

However, would you expect your manager to inquire, “How can I help?”  when you walked into his or her office?  I wouldn’t.

Equally important, do you use this question as the opening for many of the discussions with your co-workers or those who report to you? Upon reflection, I only occasionally offered these words to my direct reports during the course of my career.

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