How to Get the Most from Your People

In general, are you a teller or a questioner? In other words, when you’re working with your employees (or outsourcers) do you tend to tell them what to do or do you engage them in a conversation by asking questions?

If you’re like most entrepreneurial leaders, chances are you’re the former. If that’s true, then my question to you is, a la Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

My guess is it’s not working out as great as you’d like it to. In fact, I find that most entrepreneurial leaders are pretty frustrated with the people they’re “leading.” See if any of the following statements ring true for you

  • “They never do what I tell them to do!”
  • “It always takes her ten times longer to do what I asked her to do. If she’d just listen to me, she could get it done in one tenth of the time it’s currently taking!”
  • “I can’t understand why it’s taking him so long to do what I asked him to do.”
  • “I can’t figure out why she just can’t follow my directions.”
  • “I didn’t hire him to think. I hired him to do what I tell him to do.”

Ouch! And I fully understand those sentiments. As an entrepreneurial leader myself I understand why you want people to do what you want them to do in the way you want them to do it (after all, you are the BOSS, right? And it is YOUR company. And you do pay THE BILLS. And they do work for YOU, right?).

Furthermore, I get the whole driven part of the entrepreneurial personality. In fact, in the DISC profile, I’m a 20 out of 22 D (D = Directive). So, by personality, I like being a teller. I like saying, as chances are you do, “Here’s what I want you to do. Now, just go do it. No questions. No debate. Just get it done EXACTLY how I told you to do it.”

But, as you well know, that approach doesn’t produce the best results

The Problem With Being a Teller

What I learned, and hopefully you are as well, is that being a teller is a counterproductive leadership approach. Why? For a number of reasons. I’ll give you three.

1. Telling doesn’t create buy in. As you know, people own what they help create, which, by definition means they don’t own what they don’t help create. So, if you or I say, “Billy, I want you to do X in Y way,” how much does he own that? Virtually nil. And if someone doesn’t own a task or project or process/procedure or event or strategy or tactic, the chances of them producing the best result will always be lower than if Billy is involved in creating the solution. Telling doesn’t work because it doesn’t create buy in or ownership.

Note: We’re not talking about following systems here. We’re talking about solving problems or creating something new.

2. Telling doesn’t produce the kind of people you want/need. In other words, if you’re a teller, you’re NOT developing your people to be their best (whether that’s to be a better leader or problem solver or innovator or coach or process person, etc.). Or to put it another way, if you or I are always in the telling position, then we’re not creating independent thinkers. And if we’re not creating independent thinkers, then we’ll have to keep doing all the thinking—which leads to the third reason why you don’t want to be a teller.

3. Telling doesn’t create leverage. If you or I still have to do all the thinking, then we’re not creating leverage. We’re simply creating more work for ourselves. We become the bottleneck to growth. If our people don’t own the task, then we have to invest more time in managing and leading the task. If our people aren’t really excited about a task or project, then more conflict will occur, which means we’ll have to invest more time. Or, if the only people we’re happy with are people who will just do what they’re told, then we’ll always put a lid on the quality of the kind of employee we can hire (which, again, kills leverage).

Any way you add it up, being a teller, just isn’t the smartest leadership choice you or I can make if we want to grow a fast growing business or organization.

The Better Option

The better option, if you want to get the best from your people, is to learn to release your inner Socrates. Even if this isn’t your natural bent, you can learn to do this. In fact, the reason I’m writing this post today is because one of my clients said to me this week—when we were discussing an employee situation and I was role-playing out the conversation for him, “Bruce, one of the things I appreciate about you is that you’re so good at asking questions. I’m not. That’s just not how I’m wired.”

To which I responded, “Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not wired that way either.” Learning to use questions to lead isn’t a natural ability for most of us, it’s an acquired skill. And it’s not that hard to do on a skill level, it’s only hard on an implementation level. So, here are a few ideas to help you get started on unleashing your inner Socrates.

1. Learn to see yourself as a developer of talent, not a boss. At the end of the day, most of us like to be tellers because we see ourselves as “the boss.” When we own the boss hat, most of us like to be in the teller role (I hired you. I pay you. Do what I tell you to do). And as long as we own that mindset, we’ll struggle with asking questions. However, if you can make the mental shift from boss to talent developer, you’ll begin to see your role completely differently (which is key because talent developers create leverage, whereas bosses don’t).

2. Make questioning your first response. I know this may feel pedantic, but when someone asks you a question, ask them a question back. Refuse to just give the answer (something that most of us who are male will always struggle with :-). Instead, when someone asks, “So, what do you think I should do?” throw it back to them, “First, tell me what you think you should do?” If they say, “I asked you first.” Just respond, “Well, how do you think I’d respond?” Return question for question. As hard as this is, don’t give the first answer.

3. Open your staff conversations with questions. Instead of saying, “Taraji, we have a problem here. And here’s what I want you to do.” Open the conversation with a wide open question. “Tariji, as you know, we have a problem here. What do you think is creating it?” Or, “What’s your best thinking about how to solve this?” Or, “Do you have any ideas about how we can eliminate this in the next 30 days?”

Yes, there is an art to asking good questions (for example, wide open questions are better for creating independent thinkers), but what’s more important is that you embrace the principle that being a questioner is a better leadership choice than being a teller. Once you do that, you’ll acquire the skill set over time through trial and error. But you’ll never get there if you don’t embrace this concept as a core leadership practice.

So do you? Do you really believe that being a leader who leads through questioning is better than being a leader who leads by telling? I hope so because the choice you make will have profound consequences for you and your company for years to come. So, choose wisely! Remember,

“If you want to get the most from your people, then you need to draw the best that is in them—out of them.”

To your accelerated success!

P.S. By the way, if you’re thinking, “But asking questions sure takes a lot more time than telling,” then you probably don’t own the idea that a leader isn’t a boss, a leader is a talent developer who leverages the time, talent, treasures, resources, intellectual property and connections of their people to produce a result.

Oh, and one last thought. This practice is irrelevant to size. It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a two person team or a two thousand person team, the same principle holds.

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