Quiet Leadership

Managers are programmed to solve problems. That’s what they are paid to do. That’s what they are good at. When an employee comes with a problem, many managers automatically go into solution mode without realizing it. The employee walks out with the manager’s solution, and the manager feels great.

In Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, author David Rock strongly suggests that solving your people’s problems for them creates an obstacle to developing accountable, non-dependent employees.

Rock has developed a suite of approaches for getting the other person–be it employee, family member or friend–to resolve their problem and simultaneously gain insight into the thinking process that may not be serving them well.

Anchored in current neuroscience studies, Rock’s approaches are supported by these recent discoveries:

  • Our behavior is guided by our emotions which are triggered when our thoughts (beliefs, habits, memories, assumptions, etc.) interact with certain situations in our daily life.
  • We develop neural pathways–wiring in the brain–which connect a vast array of information into subconscious patterns that direct our habitual responses to most situations. Over the years, these pathways become deeply entrenched.
  • It is much easier to develop new pathways in our neural circuitry than to try to eliminate or alter existing ones.
  • The instant we get a new idea or see a possible solution to a problem, we experience a rush of energy and for brief period we are highly motivated to do something related to it.
  • Positive acknowledgement and feedback from others have a powerful effect on the development of new pathways.

The book emphasizes two core messages. In our coaching or management role, we need to:

    1. Focus on the other person’s thinking process, rather than the problem they bring to us.
    2. Help the other person apply their own neural connections to the problem and come up with a solution that works for them. When this occurs, they become energized.

Below are Rock’s “Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work.” Rock provides great detail on each step as well as sentences that you can use, verbatim, at each step.

Step 1: Think about thinking – listen for assumptions
Try to not to listen to just the problem that the person is articulating. Listen also for the person’s assumptions and how they are framing the problem. Then, lead the conversation toward solutions.

Step 2: Listen for potential
Listen as if the individual has all the tools and ingredients to solve his or her problem but would benefit from exploring his/her thinking out loud. This exploration helps you, as a manager, avoid triggering your hot buttons or becoming entangled in the details of the problem, or your own filters around what is right and possible. Additionally, it allows you to think twice before wanting us to solve their problem.

Step 3: Speak with intent – brevity is best 
When you do offer insight, comments or suggestions, deliver them in short bites, specific points, and in terms that they will understand. An employee who is emotionally vexed by a problem and perhaps out of his or her comfort zone is less able to absorb rational ideas and solutions.

Step 4: Dance of insight – dig into causes
This sequence of four techniques is the heart of Rock’s methodology. The goal is to take the individual from “stuck thinking” to new insights and concrete action.

  1. Ask permission when you want to move the conversation to a deeper, possibly more unsettling level for the individual. For example, “You said you were a bit testy in your reply to the committee. Can I ask you a bit more about what prompted your reaction?”
  2. Define what you want the conversation to be about and the context of the comments you will be making. For example, “Bill, I want to clarify what the initial expectations were of both you and the committee members and then look at some alternative ways you could have handled their questions.”
  3. Don’t ask questions to learn details about the incident or problem, rather ask questions to probe the person’s thinking. One question might be, “How strongly would you like to clear this issue up with the committee?”
  4. Finally, clarify, based on your impressions, what they seem actually to be saying, what they are trying to say, the feelings behind their words, and so forth. More than just mirroring back what you heard them say, try to summarize your intuitive impression, such as, “It sounds like you are really ready to sit down with them and have a dialogue.”

Step 5: The “CREATE” model – explore, solve and motivate
Lead the person to explore their thinking and the situation at-hand with the goal of identifying their current reality. Next, explore alternative solutions or courses of action. Finally, tap the energy that hopefully arises from one of the ideas they have surfaced.

Step 6: Follow up
Follow up on your employee’s progress on his/her plan of action.

When you turn a problem back over to your employee to work out, you will probably be taking him/her outside their comfort zone. In that uncomfortable place, employees tend to experience fear, confusion, unfamiliarity and self-doubt. The techniques that Rock offers can help us lead our employees through discomfort and back to comfort. In the process they grow self-understanding and confidence. I think these techniques merit a place in every manager’s “coaching toolkit.”

Vistage Speaker Ian Cook, a principal of Fulcrum Associates Inc., is an expert in team building and leadership.

Copyright © 2008 Vistage International Inc. All rights reserved.

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