If you want a better team, don’t give them an answer!

In a leadership position, holding back your thoughts can teach your team to think for themselves.

Want a higher performing team? My suggestion is to ask more questions and give fewer answers. I've learned over the 35+ years of working with staff teams that the best way to develop people who can think for themselves, problem solve and move the organization forward is to help them develop their own leadership skills. This doesn't happen when you simply tell them how to solve a challenge.

Growing up in Scouting, my first taste of this is what Scouting calls "a guided discovery." It's pretty simple, really: When the young scouts are faced with a challenge, their first inclination is to go to the leader and ask how to solve it. Of course, the leaders know that if they just tell them the answer, the young scout learns nothing and will continue to keep coming back for "the easy way out." The leader will actually allow the young scout to make a mistake (as long as no one is hurt!) and then, through appropriate questions, help the scout learn from that mistake.

Leadership in this context is about figuring things out, finding solutions and moving forward. To teach this, the leader responds with questions rather than answers. Such questions are intended to help the person asking to think through where they could/would/should find the answer and who they could get help from.

In the workplace, we all want teammates who can think for themselves, solve challenges and figure out how to accomplish sometimes-difficult tasks. By asking more questions and giving fewer answers, we are helping them learn how to figure it out and building their confidence to take on bigger challenges.

When approached with a "how do I solve this?" sort of request, nine times out of ten my first question is "what are the options?" Depending on their answer, my next line of questioning either helps them weigh the pros and cons of the options they have already developed, or helps them figure out where to look to develop those options.  

Does it work all the time? Of course not, but with patience (on the part of the leader), this approach will create team members that are leaders, not simply followers. And, after-all, that's what we need to move our organizations and personnel forward.

Michigan State University Extension has had a unique relationship with the regional economic development organization Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) for more than 20 years. Recognizing the strength of combining resources, this partnership focuses on economic development, entrepreneurship growth and community infrastructure throughout a four-county region in the northwest Lower Peninsula, specifically Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. As a result, the NLEA utilizes resources offered through MSU Extension as it provides leadership to state-wide programs sponsored by MSU Extension.” 

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