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Respectful inquiry has been shown to improve decision-making and increase staff motivation. Photo: iStockphoto

Why leaders need to start listening to their staff

Managers should master the art of ‘respectful inquiry’ – asking questions and then listening attentively to the answer

Will Felps

Always, as managers of large organisations, we are told to “listen to your staff”. New research at UNSW Business School shows how crucial this is.

Several years ago, I ran a series of experiments to test the theory that a bad apple team member could ruin the bunch.

I sent an actor into meetings, one who would act like a bad apple by behaving like a jerk, dragging down the mood or generally being a slacker. And indeed, in most cases, having a bad apple in the team led to worse team performance and dynamics.

But one meeting was an exception, with the group performing remarkably well. And I wondered why. So I began to investigate the secret of that meeting’s success. What I discovered was as simple as it was powerful.

Success was largely due to one person who was a talented informal leader. He asked lots of open-ended questions to engage people and distract others away from the bad apple.

He was also very good at listening once he had asked a question. I found out later that he happened to be the son of a diplomat. He was the good apple who saved the bunch.

The asking of questions is an effective and underappreciated communication technique, which I have researched in detail in the paper “Respectful Inquiry: A motivational account of leading through asking open questions and listening”, in collaboration with Niels van Quaquebeke, a professor at Kühne Logistics University.

Respectful inquiry involves asking questions in an open way then listening attentively to the response

Respectful inquiry involves asking questions in an open way then listening attentively to the response.

Such questioning and attentive listening assists the business process on a number of levels. It helps to make better decisions, gain commitment and motivate staff.

Respectful inquiry helps decision making. It means you have more perspectives and you think through things more carefully in the process of talking to others and having others justify their views.

The commitment argument comes from the large amount of research that says people want to have a voice in decision-making. Studies suggest that, as long as people sense that their opinions have been heard, they will usually support the final decision, even if it goes against their original argument. This is a crucial technique in building a successful team and one that managers everywhere would do well to remember.

And how does the act of respectful inquiry motivate staff? It has to do with what the academic world refers to as “self-determination theory”.

Respectful inquiry is very satisfying for people because it signals to them that you think they are competent, that they are valued members of the group and that they have some autonomy.

In self-determination theory terms, we need these things in order to feel motivated. We want to feel we belong, we are relating to others and we have some freedom.

There are several obstacles to a healthy level of questioning and listening by leaders of organisations.

The first is simple egotism. Most people tend to think about issues from their own perspective and have difficulty taking others’ viewpoints into account.

A disproportionate number of leaders are narcissists who tend to be poor perspective takers. Narcissists want everyone to think: ‘Look how smart I am’

But research shows that this is particularly true for leaders. A disproportionate number of leaders are narcissists who tend to be poor perspective takers. Narcissists want everyone to think: “Look how smart I am”.

It is an issue we covered in this very column in the South China Morning Post back in February, when UNSW academic Benjamin Walker looked at why horrible managers need to be eliminated from Hong Kong workplaces to enhance employee innovation.

But that is a narcissistic tendency lots of us have. We do not think that much about what is in the heads of other people. That takes practice.

Another reason leaders do not engage in respectful inquiry is the old-school model of leadership – the idea that the job of a leader is to direct. Some people still think that a leader needs to constantly give direction and have all the answers. But a lot of research points to the fact that it is not quite right. The best leaders combine advocacy and inquiry.

A third roadblock has to do with “threat rigidity”, or the idea that when we are under stress, we lose our will to explore alternative avenues. Stress makes us want a quick decision or solution. We long for “cognitive closure”. Unfortunately, being a leader is a stressful job, with deadline pressures and lots of complex problems.

Worse still, newbie bosses without a lot of leadership experience are likely to be especially stressed out. Ironically, this means that although new leaders have the most to learn from others, they are the least likely to engage in respectful inquiry. Of course, this means that the time when respectful inquiry is most essential is also the time it is least likely to be utilised.

In contrast, look at Mike Abrashoff, the highly decorated former commander of the American warship, the USS Benfold. Abrashoff turned personnel performance on his ship around by employing a new management technique that was less command-and-control and more commitment-and-cohesion.

One of his techniques was to make time to individually and regularly ask everybody on his ship three questions: What do you like best about working on this ship? What do you least like about working on this ship? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

In asking and listening, Abrashoff was able to see the ship from the point of view of its people and, at the same time, lead with both conviction and humility.

For most people who are leaders, the natural instinct is not to engage in respectful inquiry. However, with discipline, habit and practice, you can make it natural. When someone working for me asks me a question, one of the things I will sometimes do is just ask, “What do you think?”

This has three benefits. One, you get to hear what they think. Two, they start taking some ownership of their opinions and become, in a way, a little bit less dependent on me and a little bit more autonomous. And third, it gives you time to collect your own thoughts on the subject.

So, if you have just taken a step up the career ladder or you have got a new job at a managerial level, perhaps it might be time to think that instead of only “telling and selling”, it would be more productive to also “ask and listen”.

And, as an added bonus, your workers will like and respect you more.

Will Felps is associate head of the School of Management at UNSW Business School. Julian Lorkin also contributed to this article

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Respectful inquiry key to cohesion