Don’t Answer That!

Questions Leaders Should Try Hard Not to Answer

We love having the answers. It’s an ego boost to know what to do when others don’t. But just because you know the answer, doesn’t mean you should give it when someone asks.

“Answer That” Scenario

Chris is Brett’s boss. Brett’s working on a project and encounters a problem. So Brett goes to Chris and asks what he should do. Chris, having been in similar circumstances, gives Brett a great answer. Brett take Chris’ advice and successfully solves the problem. What will Brett do the next time he has a problem? He’ll think, “I know, I’ll ask Chris!”. And Chris will probably give him another great answer.

What’s wrong with this scenario? Nothing, as long as Chris wants to continue to be the organization’s bottleneck, making all the decisions. Brett (and undoubtedly, many other Bretts in the organization) is being programmed to push every decision up to Chris.

Don't Answer That

Let’s try another approach.

“Don’t Answer That” Scenario

Brett has a problem and brings it to Chris. Chris listens, then asks Brett, “What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know”, says Brett, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

“Yes”, says Chris, “but if you did have an answer, what do you think it would be?”

Brett thinks for a moment, then comes up with a half-baked idea that has Chris doing an eye-roll. (Internally, of course – Chris would never show that kind of response.) “Well, I can see how that would solve part of the problem, but then what would you do if (fill in the blank) happened?”

After a minute or two of conversation, Chris still winds up giving Brett the answer. A waste of time, right? WRONG! Chris forced Brett to think for himself, developing Brett’s abilities in the process.

If this happens consistently, soon Brett’s going to have a problem and think, “I’ll ask Chris.” But his next thought will be, “Chris will want to know what I think, so I better bring an idea.” Over time, Brett’s ideas improve, and Chris spends less time coaching him through the decision process.

Eventually (be patient…), Brett will go through the, “I’ll ask Chris” – “Chris will want to know what I think” process and suddenly a lightbulb will come on: “I thought it through and I know what to do – I don’t have to ask Chris!” That’s when the extra minutes Chris invested in Brett’s development begin to pay dividends and the organizational decision bottleneck begins to crack.

First Things First

Giving a quick answer seems expedient when we’re busy. But that does nothing to break the “busy” cycle. C.S. Lewis said, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”[1] People development is a first thing. The tasks on our plate are a second thing.

Take time to invest in people if you want a great return.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and memoir W. H. Lewis (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966; reprint: New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966), p. 228. © 2023 enLumen Leadership Services

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