Leaders Who Tell Instead of Ask

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Posted by Maren Fox - 30 November, 2017

Four Types of Leaders Who Tell When They Should Ask

It should come as no surprise that people don't like being told what to do.

But a big part of leading a team or organization is getting people to do what you want. Managers must walk the line between telling people what to do and asking them—but do they?

In his bestselling book Humble Inquiry, organizational development expert and MIT Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus Edgar Schein argues that we live in a culture of Doing and Telling. In our interactions with other people, particularly when we are the boss, we tell them what we think they need to know or should do instead of building relationships with them. But telling makes people feel inferior and reduces communication and organizational effectiveness suffers. Anybody at any level of the organization could have that vital idea or insight that could mean the difference between success and disaster. The cultural tendency to “tell” instead of “ask” gets in the way of solving problems and accomplishing tasks at work.

Schein argues that two or more people have to work together to accomplish anything, they need to communicate openly—and that can only be achieved with trust. To build that trust, they must ask each other genuine questions based on being interested in each other, which Schein calls humble inquiry. In other words, bosses should ask, not tell in order to build the kinds of positive, trusting, balanced relationships that the best teams are built on.

Sounds great, right? But in truth, we have all experienced leaders who are more comfortable telling than asking. Here are four salient—and commonexamples you might recognize. Feel free to share your story in the comments!

1. The sage.

The leader who, when asked for advice, automatically assumes that they know what will be helpful.

Rather than asking about a situation before doling out advice, these leaders give automatic advice that relies heavily on assumptions they have made about what the asker knows or has already done.

For example, let's say you ask your boss what to do to resolve a tense situation with a co-worker and she simply says, “Talk to her. Just tell her where you stand—be totally honest.” She doesn't realize that you were honest about a sensitive issue and that is what gave rise to the difficulty in your relationship in the first place.

2. The know-it-all.

The leader who assumes that they know enough to tell a subordinate what to do and how to do it.

The know-it-all is a leader who—even if they don't know it all—believes they know (or should know) the best way to do a task even if they've never done it before. They don't ask questions about things they don't understand because they think leaders should have all the answers. (FYI: they don't.) 

"Here is what I want you to try..." says your boss, throwing out directions before hurrying off, not waiting to learn that you have already tried what was suggested—with no success. Or your boss asks you to put together a report and says, "it should take no more than 30 minutes." What he doesn't know: to complete this report, you have to navigate three different (but similarly clunky) cloud-based data systems, get information from two other colleagues in different departments, and you have to evaluate the data and write a brief summary. 30 minutes?! Hah!

3. The benevolent dictator.

The leader who needs feedback from employees or team members, but has created a climate in which they do not feel secure doing so.

This is where a selective memory can be the culprit. These leaders seem to forget—or perhaps not understand—the times they have shut down feedback in favor of the times they have openly asked for it.

Maybe your boss assumes that everyone knows he is “open” to talking about anything, but he does not remember also telling your team “Don't bring me a problem unless you also bring me the solution. Or maybe your boss wants you and your team to speak up all the time, but he doesn't think about how yelling at you in the past has made you and your team hesitant to do so.

These leaders don't remember, but other people do.

4. The pied piper.

The leader who asks questions that aren’t really questions.

This sort of a (non)question forces the respondent to say "yes" without exploring the issues further and getting clear on what needs to happen. As a result, even though the answer is "yes," it is an answer in the abstract since no real trust, understanding, or course of action have been established. “Don't you agree that to get our job done we all need to be open, trusting, and collaborative with each other?”

Have you ever experienced a leader like this, who tells instead of asks?  Share your story in the comments!

Topics: Your Team, You, Leadership, Communication


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