The Move to ‘Quiet Leadership’

Help people think better – don’t tell them what to do. That’s the advice from a new management practice for today’s corporate realities. Josie Thomson outlines the strategies for what has been labelled ‘quiet leadership’.

It’s a complex and stressed out world in corporations large and small. Most workers are juggling dozens if not hundreds of emails a day, delivering results under significant time pressures, working on half a dozen big projects, dealing with politics, resources, difficult customers and all sorts of challenges. There is uncertainty, constant change, unexpected breakdowns and the odd calamity. And along comes a leader who wants to get them doing things differently.

Changing an individual’s behaviour is not that different from managing a change process within a complex system such as a large company. In any change process you need a clear vision, to know exactly what your goals are before you start. You need to plan things out carefully and develop a realistic timetable, and you need people responsible for specific elements of the plan.

For change to happen you need to make the whole change process, every part of it including the goals, plans, roles and milestones very explicit. Explicit means every component of the change process is clear and well understood by everyone, not just implicit, with people expecting others to understand what’s happening when this is not the case. Step one is to let them do all the thinking.

‘Ideas are like children: there are none so wonderful as your own’ – 
Chinese fortune cookie, Killington, Vermont, Feb 2005

The best way to help others succeed is by helping them think things through for themselves. You are there on the sidelines cheering and supporting, but they are doing the thinking about the issues. Your focus is on helping them develop their commitment to thinking, helping them crystallize their thinking and encouraging them to make new connections.

The key reasons why a self-directed approach is so powerful when we are helping people think anything through are:

To improve thinking: Firstly, we have to think things through ourselves before we decide to take any kind of action, and before we really ‘learn’ anything. ‘Self-directed’ is the only way we learn, think, invent, create, problem solve, visualise, rethink, re-engineer, you name it, it all happens within a process of making our own connections. It comes down to whether we help people think better, or we get in the way of their thinking. If we want people to think better, then we should use the self-directed approach.

To improve the quality of ideas: Somehow we believe we can think for people, when the reality is that no two brains are even remotely alike. What we think someone should be doing is just what ourbrain might want to do, but rarely has any relevance to how other people’s brains work. So if we want to improve the quality of people’s ideas, the quality of their thinking, our best option is to learn to help them process ideas better. For example, helping people crystallize ideas better, or find relationships between ideas, or prioritize ideas.

To increase people’s motivation: When people make connections in their own mind there is a tangible release of energy, a discernible ‘aha’ moment that fills us with a desire to do something. On a physical level, this aha moment releases chemicals in the body to prime it for action. The energy created by insight is an important energy source to be harnessed. In the workplace there are many drains on our energy, including restrictions, policies and politics holding people back from expressing themselves. There is also often poor lighting, long hours, hundreds of emails every day, and many things people would much rather not be doing. As a leader we need to harness every possible energy source that might inspire better performance, and letting people come up with their own ideas is a deep well of motivation. As the quote says,’Ideas are like children: there are none so wonderful as your own’.

It’s less effort for everyone: When you try to think for people it takes a lot of mental energy on your part. We have to think really hard, and we almost always come up with the wrong answer for that person. The other person then spends their energy fending off your ideas instead of generating their own thoughts, then you start again and try something else… all told, there is quite a lot of wasted energy for both parties.

It’s faster: Many leaders think it’s their job to tell people what to do, to have the answers, to be the source of wisdom. Yet from watching hundreds of managers learn some basic coaching techniques and applying them, it is absolutely clear that in the same dialogue, you will get to an outcome, specifically an outcome where someone is going to take action in some way, in a fraction of the time using a self-directed approach than you would by making suggestions.

Anytime someone comes to you wanting help thinking anything through, you have an opportunity to use a self-directed learning approach. This is when people say things like: ’What do you think I should …’, ‘I’m not sure what to …’, ‘I really want to… but I’m not….’. These are statements that say people want help with their thinking. When you start to listen out for them you may notice that these dialogues are very common. They are happening constantly between management, peers and reports, right across every organization.

That is not to suggest that in every conversation when someone says something like this you start using this approach. There are plenty of times when you don’t have ‘permission’ to have this kind of dialogue. People may just be venting anger or frustration and the last thing they are ready to do is think more deeply at that moment. A useful ‘flag’ for using a self directed approach is to pause any time we feel ourselves about to give advice, about to tell people what we would do or, want to share our experience or opinion. If it is appropriate to do this, it’s generally going to be appropriate to use a self-directed approach.

People, especially long time managers, often ask when a self directed approach is the right approach and when should we be using other approaches. Managers often complain about constantly having to solve their people’s problems for them and, sometimes, it is the manager more addicted to this than the staff. If you want people’s thinking to improve, always use a self-directed approach. Giving people an answer does little but continue their dependence on you. Self-directed learning is a way of thinking, not just a strategy or technique. It’s a commitment to always help the other person do as much as possible of the thinking according to the way their wiring is set up – a commitment to getting them to make the connections themselves.

Of course there are times when a directive style is required in management. Firing people, and life or death emergencies, will require another approach. However, in general day-to-day work, if you want to improve people’s thinking, the rule of thumb is to get them doing the thinking about the issue rather than to think for them. Sounds simple enough, yet somehow this is a long way from the approach that happens day to day in most workplaces. Changing leaders’ styles to this new way takes more than just reading. It requires the creation of new wiring in individuals and in whole groups. The good news is that it can be done. It just takes some time and commitment, and of course, a lot of self directed learning.

Many people, when they first hear of this idea, feel there is some merit in the principal but are not yet ready to make the leap and take this on as a way of communicating. Quiet leaders, like any great coach, know that the most important factor necessary to create positive and sustainable change in others is to get the other person to come to an idea for themselves.

You can learn more about this in Dr David Rock’s book, Quiet Leadership.

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