Leading Knowledge Workers

Peter Drucker announced the passing of the ‘command and control’ style of business leadership in the 1950s. He and others recognised it is an act of futility to tell a person she MUST come up with a bright idea to solve a problem; but this does not stop a lot of ‘C’ and ‘D’ grade mangers from exacerbating failure by trying to control everything and blaming everyone else when the inevitable happens. Knowledge workers need motivating, guiding and inspiring by their leader so they feel empowered to deal with the issue or challenge.

This is not a new concept, the military developed the concept of auftragstaktik at the beginning of the 19th Century (see: Command or Control). Ever earlier, Laozi said “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled they will say ‘we did it ourselves’.” Laozi’s Tao Te Ching underpins Daoism, which in modern China is both a philosophical tradition and organized religion. He advocated humility in leadership and a restrained approach to statecraft. His emphasis on ‘naturalness’ translates into a way of life characterized by simplicity, calmness, and freedom from tyranny.

One way you can translate these concepts into the modern workplace is through the effective use of questions. Christine Comaford, an executive coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together advocates asking five ‘teaching questions’ for every one piece of advocacy or instruction.

If you continuously give detailed orders, you are teaching your team dependence. Whereas asking questions encourages learning and development, and frees up your time as your team takes on the new skills.

The type of discussion recommended by Comaford goes like this: ‘George’ comes to you and says, “Hey boss, how should I process this order?” And you say, “Well, what would you do? … Okay, what else? … Who should we loop in? … What could go right? … What could go wrong?”

She has found that if you ask that person the five questions on three separate occasions; by the end of the third inquiry session, they are going to ‘get it’ and start to forge a new pathway, and they’re going to go, “Wow, whenever I go and ask the boss for orders, he actually asks me what I would do”. ‘George’ will come to you for one or two more validation sessions – then he’s off and running. He owns his area of responsibility.

The most effective intrinsic motivators are autonomy, authority and achievement (see more on Motivation), and the skilful use of effective questions is one effective way to crate these factors in your team (see more on Effective Questions).

And the really good news is that by teaching your team confidence and competence with questions rather than dependence with orders, they are more likely to have the ideas and skills that will help you succeed.

So what’s your ratio of orders given to questions asked?

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2 responses to “Leading Knowledge Workers

  1. Pingback: Powerful Questions | Stakeholder Management's Blog

  2. Pingback: Powerful Questions | Mosaicproject's Blog

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