“Terry my boy, what do you think?”
I had never been so prepared to answer that question, delivered by my boss in his typically theatrical way.
I had been thinking about this question for a better part of a week. We were working on an important project, and there was a problem. A problem that demanded some original thinking.
As the Project Manager, I had many hours of meetings with all the key players involved, and diligently forged a consensus on a proposed course of action – so we could present it to our boss that day with a united front.
With all that work completed, my confidence high, and with two of my colleagues around me for support, I took a deep breath, and started to answer the question.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had just stepped onto a land mine, and it was about to explode.
“That was the most insane idea I have ever heard – how could you possibly think I would like it”, he said.
I was flummoxed. I didn’t see that coming. I stammered for a couple of moments, and tried to regain my composure. After a few cautious words, my boss pointed at the person next to me and loudly exclaimed , “Mr. _____, don’t you think that’s the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard??”
“Oh yes sir, it most certainly is”, said the person who a mere 5 minutes earlier was in absolute agreement with me.
My balloon deflated. My confidence was now totally gone, and I felt about two inches tall.
Just because somebody asked me “What do you think?”.
It was all downhill from there. In subsequent meetings I simply clammed up, and just dealt in facts, never offering up any strong opinions about anything.
I became a “Yes Man”.
Eventually (and mercifully) I left that job, but not without learning a very valuable lesson:
When you ask for someone’s opinion you have to really want to hear the answer. You have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
Or else, what SHOULD be one of the best things leaders can ask can easily put them in a danger zone filled with morale destruction and ineffectiveness.
I know, it’s leadership 101, right? It’s talking the leadership talk.
Asking teammates what they think is one of those handy “feelgood” tools that implies inclusion, concern, collaboration, openness, and, if really used correctly, humility (i.e. I don’t know all the answers).
So for most leaders who have been through any kind of training, or read any kind of leadership books or manuals, it’s a “no brainer” win to sit in a meeting and throw out that question.
It feels good. Nothing says “I’m practicing good leadership, see?” more than asking for an opinion. (You can literally see that on the faces of some people when they do it).
But here’s the catch. You have to walk the walk. You have to really WANT another opinion, be able to address it, and, if it warrants it, actually change YOUR opinion. You have to have an open mind, even if your views have already hardened.
And you most certainly can’t trash it almost immediately, with prejudice. And then force everyone else to trash it too, for good measure.
The real danger zone is in how YOU respond, or don’t respond. You don’t get the “credit” just for asking the question. If it’s just an excuse to ridicule, or you show no real intention to absorb, comprehend, consider, or even just LISTEN and acknowledge the full opinion, you are way better off just not asking for it.
Otherwise you will confuse, alienate, and anger your teammates, and deflate their willingness to contribute. All in the name of trying to “talk” like a leader and asking for an opinion you didn’t want.
Recognize the dangers here as I have (painfully), and don’t turn what should be one of the best questions you’ll ever ask into one of the worst. Talk the talk AND walk the walk, and lead well.