Tame the Advice-Giving Monster

Tame the advice-giving monster by building an [adaptive] habit of staying curious a little longer and rushing to advice-giving a little more slowly. ~Michael Bungay Stanier

The advice-giving monster, what a vivid image (thank you Michael Bungay Stanier). Unfortunately, we’ve created workplaces that practice far more advice-giving than asking and exploring possibilities. There are three types of questions that I believe we ask far more frequently than we realize that could be “tamed.” We think we’re “asking” but really we’ve only dressed-up our advice-giving as a question. Anyone leading with bold grace will adapt to others, and moving to advice-giving a little more slowly is a step in that direction. These example are borrowed from Tony Stoltzfus’ Coaching Questions.

Advice-giving: Pieces of Advice with a Question Mark Pasted On

These are solution-oriented questions like “Shouldn’t you check in with your boss before you act on this?” This type of question can be easy to spot because typically the second word in the question is “you.” “Should you, could you, will you, don’t you, can you, have you, are you.”

The solution is to follow your curiosity. Go back to the thing that made you curious and ask about that. In this example you might ask, “What kind of channels do you need to go through before you act on this?”

Advice-giving: Putting Our Spin on Their Words

Interpretive questions are those where we put a spin on what the other person is saying. For example, someone says, “It’s hard to get to work on Monday mornings and I’m bored with my current assignment.” You then ask the question, “How long have you hated your job?” That’s a lot of interpretation.

The solution is to use their own words, don’t interpret. So you might ask, “How long have you been bored with your current assignment?” You’re not putting your own spin on what they said. When we interpret, we erode trust.

Advice giving: Leading the Other Person to a Specific Answer

Through our “question” we are trying to lead the other person to a specific answer, maybe even subtly. We may not even realize that we are asking a leading question and propelling the conversation in a certain direction. For example, “How would you describe how you’re feeling: discouraged?” “If you take this new position will it take time and energy away from your family?” Both are leading questions.

The solution is to provide multiple options, or the opposite. In these examples you could ask, “How would you describe how you’re feeling: are you discouraged, excited, upset, or what?” “If you take this new position will it take time and energy away from your family? Or, will this open doors to get you the kind of family time you truly want?”

Tame the advice-giving monster, adapt to others, and lead with bold grace.

Are you a reactive leader?

Great leaders are thoughtful and deliberate, not impulsive and reactive. ~Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines

We need to adapt to situations and not be a reactive leader—we’ve been learning to do that a lot over the past year. We also need to adapt to other people and not be reactive. For example, reacting to someone’s idea before we take the time to really understand them and adapt by setting the stage for genuine communication.

It Takes Patience

In many of our conversations a very succinct response is what’s warranted. If someone is asking you for direction, they are likely looking for a direct answer. However, if someone is taking a risk and making a suggestion, sharing a daring idea, or in some way stepping out on a limb, a “reaction” may not be the best response.

There are four steps that will allow you to set the stage for communication that is not reactive, but will enable you to be more adaptive to the other person. These four steps come from Tim Muehlhoff in I Beg to Differ.

Four Steps

Step 1. Listen to learn what they believe/think? Chances are they didn’t describe their thought, idea, or suggestion completely. So, ask questions to listen to learn. These “questions” could actually be statements like, “tell me more,” “keep going,” or “could you give me an example.” You need to be curious, even for a couple of minutes, to really learn what the other person believes or thinks.

Step 2. Listen to understand the other person. The best questions to understand don’t start with “why” but instead start with “how” or “what.” “Why” questions tend to make us defensive. For example, “What led you to this idea?” “How did you come to this conclusion?” You aren’t listening to evaluate, or even worse, to ambush; you are listening with curiosity to sincerely understand.

Step 3. Foster common ground. Look for areas or aspects where you agree, or where you can support their idea or suggestion. Highlight those aspects.

Step 4. Then, consider what you should say given the timing, the circumstances, and the individual person, Be selective, or adaptive, in your response.

This four-step process is likely counter-intuitive to what some people consider effective leadership. Straightforward, quick reactions have their place, but a reactive approach is not always appropriate or helpful. And it certainly does not suggest leading with bold grace. I would argue that it’s bold to hold back your “reaction” and a reflection of grace to first really listen to understand.

For reference, here are the four steps one more time.

  1. What do they believe/think? (listen to learn)
  2. Why do they believe/think what they do? (listen to understand)
  3. With what aspects do I agree? (foster common ground)
  4. Then, ask yourself, with this person, at this time, under these circumstances, what is the next thing I should say?

Lead with bold grace by not being a reactive leader, but instead taking the time to adapt to other people through genuine communication.

Lead with an Infinite Mindset

Some men fish all their lives without knowing it is not really the fish they are after.  ~Henry David Thoreau

An infinite mindset?

Leading with bold grace requires someone to lead with a higher purpose. As I stated in my last post, a higher purpose reflects something aspirational. It explains how the people involved with an organization are making a difference, it gives them a sense of meaning.

James Carse, author of Finite and Infinite Games said, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

I’d like to add to the notion that having a higher purpose reflects something aspirational; I believe it is also a mindset. I’ll use James Carse’s analogy of a finite versus infinite game. A finite game is for the purpose of winning. An infinite game is for the purpose of continuing the play. Imagine a leader with the mindset of finding ways to continue the play versus winning.

Infinite Mindset Example

It’s not unusual for me to meet with a group of leaders—whether they are organizational leaders or a group of board members—and for someone to make a statement like, “What are we trying to win? Everyone is motivated by winning.” Well, not necessarily.

First, not everyone is motivated by winning. For certain personality types this is absolutely true, but for others, it is simply not the case. Second, one of the down sides of winning is that it has an endpoint. Once that endpoint is achieved you have to keep moving the goalpost down the field to keep winning. And for there to be a winner, there must also be a loser.  

If a leader has the mindset of playing an infinite game, then the purpose is to keep the play going, not to win. And, finding ways to keep the play going is the mindset of higher purpose.

An Infinite Mindset

Sometimes it can be fine line between having the mindset of a finite versus an infinite game. For example, a leader may have the goal for their organization to be named a “best place to work” by a specific association or publication. Organizations who are named, “win” and those who are not, “lose.” It has an endpoint; it’s finite. While an infinite mindset might focus on offering stable employment for individuals in the region that provides both a living wage and flexibility to help families thrive. That’s infinite. The goal does not have an endpoint; the goal it is to keep it going for as long as possible.

Yes, that example is a fine line. But it’s easy to cross that line and suddenly find ourselves knee-deep in finite games, competing, looking for ways to win. Before we know it, we realize that we’ve been fishing all our lives (i.e., trying to win) without knowing that it is not really the fish we are after. But something more.

Lead with bold grace; lead with higher purpose through an infinite mindset.   

Lead with Higher Purpose

Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

A higher purpose doesn’t have to be that complicated. A number of years ago I worked with a manufacturer. We’ll say they made widgets to keep it confidential. While working with the managers I asked what was their purpose. They said it was to make widgets. After I probed, cajoled and probably even nagged, no matter how I asked the question their answer remained the same. Our purpose is to make widgets. In my head I was thinking, sarcastically, wow, sign-me up!

This mindset of labor without a purpose was evident throughout the plant. Employees were there for a paycheck and nothing else. What I found frustrating was that it really didn’t have to be that way. Yes, they made widgets, but there was certainly opportunity to have a higher purpose given both what they made and the region where they were located. I feared that most of the employees there would be just as Oliver Wendell Holmes described, they would go to their graves with music still inside them, unplayed.

Infuse a Higher Purpose

A number of early management theorists (1968-1992) believed that the primary responsibility of the leader was to infuse purpose and meaning into the work lives of organization members. Unfortunately, in more recent history less emphasis has been placed on the leader’s role in clarifying and enhancing meaningfulness.

An organization needs to have a higher purpose; something that is more important than just making money, reaching a competitive goal, or yes, making widgets. A higher purpose is not about economic exchanges. It reflects something more aspirational. It explains how the people involved with an organization are making a difference, it gives them a sense of meaning. Unfortunately, one of the greatest barriers to embracing purpose is the cynical view that the organization’s relationship to employees is merely “transactional.” Employees provide labor and the organization cuts them a paycheck.

Kim Cameron, in Positive Leadership shares this example. “In a study of custodians who work in a hospital, researchers interviewed a staff member who was assigned to clean up vomit in the oncology ward when patients came in for chemotherapy. This staff member described her work as, ‘My job is equally important to the physician. I help these people feel human. At their lowest and most vulnerable point, I help them maintain their dignity. My role is crucial to the healing process.’” That’s a higher purpose!

More than a Mere Transaction

No organization and no role needs to be relegated to a mere transaction. Someone leading from the perspective of bold grace will both look for and provide opportunity to be part of a higher purpose.  

Lead with bold grace. Don’t let those under your leadership go to their graves with music still inside them, unplayed.

Resilient leaders are always anticipating.

Resilient leaders stay focused on the horizon, anticipating the new models that are likely to emerge and sparking the innovations that will define tomorrow. ~ Punit Renjen (Deloitte Insights)

Resilient leaders anticipate opportunities and threats. That’s a statement I read on a website last week and I completely agree. It got my attention because many times that is not what I see happening.

It’s a frequent practice for me to begin a strategic planning engagement with a client by interviewing the key leaders. I typically ask questions that would fall into the categories of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. After all these years it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, when leaders can’t really identify opportunities. This is something outside of their organization. It’s external, it could be a change in the market, technology, competition, consumer attitudes, etc. It is not internal to their organization. Yet, when I ask that question (and I ask it several times different ways), I get answers like, we need to improve our physical infrastructure, or we need to do more employee development.

This is a sign, for me, that the organization is not likely to be resilient because the leaders aren’t thinking like resilient leaders. If leaders don’t have their heads up, looking outside the organization, and aren’t attuned to what’s happening in their environment, their organization is likely to struggle, if it isn’t already.

Old Habits Hinder Resilient Leaders

This also reflects another concern and frustration I have with how resiliency and our old habits of strategic planning don’t align. Many organizations want to do an environmental scan to initiate the strategic planning process. What frustrates me is that they wait, every three to five years, to pause and look to see what’s happening outside of their organization. Waiting, years, simply doesn’t work any longer. It’s holding on to a rigid process from the 90s, which is before we had access to nearly any data point, trend, or analysis we could imagine at our finger tips.

The degree of change that happens in a single year is staggering. I recognize that the past 12 months have been anything but “typical,” but it is our reality. Consider the number of changes that have been thrust upon us in just a single year. And, many of these changes won’t go away, or at least won’t return to the same extent they were in pre-COVID days.

If 2020 has taught leaders nothing else about resiliency, I hope that it’s taught us to be constantly aware of our environment, continuously work to anticipate the future, and be ready to adapt or pivot on a moment’s notice. We’ve become more resilient because we’ve been forced to.

As COVID positivity rates improve and restrictions are gradually lifted, let’s not forget the important lessons we’ve learned and the new habits we’ve developed that have made us more resilient.

Being Resilient Leaders

  • Live with a sense of urgency to be aware of our external environment
  • Create structures and systems that support adaptability (i.e., a workforce that really can work from home)
  • Look to the future with anticipation, discovery, and opportunity

Be resilient, not rigid, and lead with bold grace.