What do you think?

What do you think?

Very early in my first job, I was leading a department on the production shopfloor staffed with a unionised workforce that was more than twice my age. One day, workmen of my department went on a “flash strike” which posed me with a dilemma at the end of the shift as leaving the workplace with none to attend to furnaces would have been a serious safety hazard. I did what every rookie would – ask my boss what I should do? My boss, replied with a question – “What do you think?”. I was taken aback but had no choice but to think my way through on my own. The situation was resolved through some courageous and creative actions, but more importantly, the episode gave me tremendous self-belief and my stature as a leader was majorly enhanced. I carried this belief in myself through my career and it has stood me in good stead throughout.


I sometimes wonder, what would have happened if my boss would have “told” me what to do? I think it would have robbed me of a great development opportunity. At the same time, it was a risk my manager took in reposing his faith in a rookie. Through my career spanning over three decades, I have experienced this situation from the other side and also, witnessed this scenario play out in front of me several times. On many occasions, I have seen the script being played out differently. A great opportunity missed – both for the leader as well as for members of their teams.


Why is it so common for leaders to spew out solutions when asked for one by their subordinates?


Conditioning - We have been brought up with stories, fables and legends where the leader comes up with magnificent solutions to intractable problems. This conditioning is further reinforced through chest-thumping, larger-than-life portrayals of leaders in movies. The leader has to be the one that comes up with the silver bullet, magical solution. Since a lot of us have bought into this narrative, we, including the leader, expect the leader to give us a solution when we are faced with a difficult situation. This is further fuelled by an anxiety on the leader’s part of showing vulnerability.


The Saviour syndrome - The leader often wants to be seen as the one with superior intellectual and analytic abilities and so giving solutions feeds into this ego craving. I call it the “saviour syndrome”. This instinctive drive is inherent in most, as we want to contribute concretely to the team’s success and also, perhaps more importantly, be the person to whom the success is attributed.


This behaviour from the leader is often not called out as it supports the stereotype of a strong leader.
This can open the organisation and the team to many risks.


Risk of wrong decisions - The leader may simply not have the right competence to give a solution. Many leaders are a bit removed from the heat and dust of the battle and hence, can easily lose perspective. This can cause direct concrete harm to the business.


Risk of loss of ownership – This is the obvious risk of loss of ownership of the decision or solution from the employees. The solution then is the “boss’s solution” and they then carries the ownership of the effectiveness of the solution – either explicitly or implicitly. Of course, there is always the response from the boss hinting towards wrong execution in case of a failure. In any case, there is a high possibility of “Operation successful, patient dead”.


Risk of negation of agency – This risk is the subtle and long-term negative impact on the Organisation with the validation of the negation of agency within the team. The inherent reason for the employee to come to the leader for a solution is the belief that he or she doesn’t possess the agency to deal with the situation. And by providing a solution, the leader is lending credibility to this belief. This is a self-perpetuating belief that will eventually eat at the heart of an organisation’s desire to build self-motivated and empowered teams.


I have found that a simple way to ensure one doesn’t fall into this reflexive behaviour is to develop a habit of asking the employee – “what do you think?”. The first reaction from the employee is of being taken aback which can cause confusion. It may even take some time for the employee to believe that the leader is truly serious and is genuinely looking for his or her suggestions. And then there is always the possibility that the employee may just blank out. This approach takes time and patience. Obviously, one may not reach a conclusion as quickly as one might want, however, the benefits from this approach are well worth it. The employees’ self-esteem slowly improves to a point that they will approach the manager with options rather than a blank page and then own the solution fully, thereby, increasing the chances of effective execution.


A leader’s success is not measured by how he thinks but by how he induces his employees to think. “I think, therefore, I am” – Descartes defined human identity with our ability to think, and then it follows that by encouraging our employees to think for themselves helping them come closer to their own self and identity. This, I believe, is the prime responsibility of a leader.


Can one use this approach every time? Maybe not. This is when we enter the realm of situational leadership. I would recommend this approach even when the employee is a relative rookie (as in my story) while keeping in mind that one has to be even more understanding. The only situation when I would not employ this is when there is a fire on the deck!


What do you think? is an open-ended question which will lead to more questions for clarity and hopefully to a conversation. This is best done one-on-one, and while one can also employ it in a meeting, one should be careful to ensure that it doesn’t sound like a challenge or a test of the employee’s thinking prowess. Here the tone of the question matters the most.


I believe “What do you think” to be one of the most powerful questions that one can employ not only in office but also at home. The other day, my younger daughter and I were having the “father-daughter” conversation related to her choice of employment. Being fiercely independent minded, it would have been easy to lose her buy-in if I had stuck to the stereotypical father response. Thankfully, I possessed the awareness and patience to ask “What do you think?” leading into an extremely fruitful and enriching conversation.


Mr. Ashish Pradhan, President, Siegwerk Asia


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