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Leaders versus Dictators

Is SatNav leading us down the wrong path?

In 300 metres take the third exit on the roundabout, then stay in the left-hand lane” my trusty SatNav reassuringly tells me.  Most of the time it gets me where I want to go pretty efficiently – the wonders of 21st century technology!

However, I do notice that I’ve become so reliant on this amazing smartphone app that I abdicate all responsibility for learning the geography of the area.  I am now a slave to SatNav. I remember not so long ago, poring over maps to work out the best way to get from A to B.  It forced me to understand where I was going so I would remember it for next time.  With SatNav unfortunately none of this learning happens.  I have to be told what to do every time. I am psychologically dependent on my SatNav!

Giving answers versus asking questions

We can think of the above as a metaphor for two different styles of leadership.  SatNav is very much a ‘Telling Approach’: do this, do that, turn around – you’ve gone wrong. The focus here is on micro-management with little scope for initiative, learning or developing. Managers who adopt this approach will never get the full potential from their staff – who’ll always be dependent on instructions from above.  There’s no need for initiative when you’re awaiting the next instruction telling you exactly what to do, even if this advice or guidance is given with the best intentions.

The ‘Map-reading Approach’ is totally different. With this style of leadership, the onus is on the individual to work out the ‘route’ and understand how to get there.  As a manager, you can foster this approach by asking questions rather than telling people the answer.

If a member of staff says to you ‘I’ve got a problem with this customer – what should I do?’, the temptation is to give them advice.  We are genetically wired to find solutions, give people answers. In our hunter-gatherer days, these behaviours gave us survival advantages.

However, if we simply tell people something, it is likely that learning, memory and cognition do not occur.  Our brain is a network of 86 billion neurons, with each neuron potentially connecting to 15,000 other neurons.  The maths is staggering. Renowned neuroscientist John Ratey says, “there are more potential neuronal connections in the brain than atoms in the universe!” However, learning only occurs when these neurons connect to encode new knowledge and understanding.  By asking questions, a manager is forcing the individual to think things through for themselves and, thereby, forging new connections.  None of this happens with the Telling Approach or worse, when we constantly criticise. Therefore, instead of coming up with even well-meaning advice for your people, ask them questions. For example:

– What ideas have you thought about already?
– Which would be most palatable to the customer?
– How much would this cost the company?

You could even ask them to come up with three possible solutions with pros and cons for each and make their recommendation to you tomorrow. As a manager and effective leader, your job is not to do their thinking for them, your job is to help them think better.  This creates self-sufficiency and, in the long run, frees your time up to manage rather than to do.

Promoting this kind of environment will require you to engage in a lot more positive reinforcement than may be the norm at your workplace. Staff will need permission to fail.  All too often when something goes wrong, we tend to criticise and focus on the problem:

– Why did this happen?
– Why didn’t you do it like this?
– Didn’t you think through the consequences?

This type of problem-focus is only natural, but the trouble is that it makes us ruminate about the problem and can make us uncreative and stuck.  A much more productive approach is to focus on the solution:

– What did you learn from this?
– How could you apply this learning next time a similar situation arises?
– How could we turn this to our advantage?

This type of conversation will reduce activity in the brain’s threat circuitry, meaning the responses are less likely to be defensive or, even, angry. If handled skilfully, the situation will be seen as a positive challenge and, instead, will trigger the brain’s reward system, motivating staff to rise to the occasion and offer insightful feedback.

These are simple yet powerful ways leaders and managers can transform their workplace by replacing the default practice of giving instructions and corrective advice. Asking questions and promoting a supportive yet challenging environment is a better way to achieve long-term change and improved performance. This is backed up by ex-Oracle Executive, Liz Wiseman, whose research shows that managers who adopt these principles can get double the productivity out of their people – she calls these managers, Multipliers.

If we simply tell people something, it is likely that learning, memory and cognition do not occur.

Don’t let your hippocampus shrink!

If we compare a brain scan of an average person to that of a London Taxi driver, it can be seen that they have a much bigger hippocampus (the part of the brain used for special navigation).  And the longer they’ve been a taxi driver, the bigger their hippocampus.  Since the advent of SatNav, this must surely mean that my hippocampus has shrunk! As with all skills, the adage ‘use it or lose it’ applies!

Don’t let this happen to you or your team. You can’t lead on autopilot 24/7. So, switch off your SatNav mode from time-to-time and embrace a more conscious thinking, question-asking, team involving style of leadership.

New ways to lead

Our leadership seminars and workshops aim to reveal many new ways managers to lead not only more effectively, but also more consciously, productively and profitably. Let us tell you more – contact us to arrange a call.