In a recent coaching conversation with a well-seasoned leader, I was struck by a conundrum he faced. He was working with an experienced team who seemed to constantly depend on him for decisions that, in his mind, they should have been able to handle on their own. We discussed the situation and the frustration it generated. This leader, on the one hand, felt like he had a lot to contribute but, on the other hand, felt he was constantly dealing with issues that weren’t his.

After a few more questions, we discovered that despite thinking he was being open and using questions to generate ownership on their part, he was in fact packing the questions with the answers he wanted. The light went on for him, their complacency was in fact a reaction to him unwittingly occupying their decisional space.

Here’s what I mean. Organizations hire people to make decisions. The scope and impact of those decisions vary according to the role. This decisional zone is akin to a territory that people occupy when they are fully capable and allowed to. When the leader provided the answers he was looking for in the questions, he was occupying their decisional territory and they let him.

This leader understood that he needed to shift from having the right answers to finding the right questions. His second realization was that he was addicted to having answers for people. His sense of competency was linked to providing answers, in fact his career progression was linked to that particular ability. Now that he finds himself leading people, the ability to provide answers is no longer enough to help him be successful in his role. He now needs to be surrounded by people who are much smarter than him in their areas of expertise.

This leads me to the shift of mindset.

This leader was stuck in the mindset of “Knowing”; bringing value by providing answers and solutions. This mindset followed him in everything he did, even how he asked questions. His questions sounded like: “What would you think if we tried …?” or “Don’t you think it would work better if we…?”. The answers are packed into the questions…no room to think, just room to argue or agree.

We began working together on the mindset of learning. This mindset is founded on the belief that leaders can add value and promote more accountability and ownership by seeing themselves first as learners. It’s based on a sense of curiosity rather judgement. It values others by drawing out their knowledge and expertise and it allows leaders to learn more and more about their staff, their processes, their organization and their clients.

The questions related to learning require less work to formulate. Let me show you:

“What would you think if we tried …?” becomes “What do you think we could try?”

“Don’t you think it would work better if we…?” becomes “How could we make this work better for…?”

In the situation above, my friend reported back three weeks after our conversation. He related how relaxing and asking the learning questions have transformed his relationships with two of his key contributors. He now finds himself with more time to focus on long term opportunities and is making decisions that he owns rather. I spoke to the contributors and they related how the leader had made room for them and how they were just waiting for the opportunity to work at the right level.

If you find yourself in a similar churn, here are some suggestions:

  1. When asked to make a decision ask yourself: “Is this decision mine to make or does it belong to the person asking me?” If it’s yours, move into solution mode. If it’s theirs, move into open question mode.
  2. When in the midst of working on an issue, ask yourself: “Who is working hardest here?” If it’s you, you’re most likely in solution mode. If it’s both of you, you’re likely in collaboration mode. If it’s them, you’re more likely asking good learning questions.

Here’s a good book to consider: Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams by Roger Schwarz (Jossey-Bass Books, 2013)