I was honored to be asked to speak recently at the Happy Workplaces conference in London, where I shared my thoughts on social leadership and ways leaders can embrace the Social Era.
If you read most any employee engagement survey out there today, you’ll get the same message: Employees are not engaged at the level companies need them to be. A commonly referenced Gallop study found 70% of US employees are not engaged at work. A similar UK study says that only one third of UK workers are engaged. In fact, in 2014, a study by HR Magazine found that UK employees have some of the lowest engagement levels in the world, with only 37% of workers feeling they were encouraged to be innovative.
There is not just one cause for this. One could blame the economy which is forcing many workers to work harder and more hours, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. Or you could say that companies are not rewarding their employees well enough. While there are likely many contributing factors, there is a one long-held belief that is backed by data:
People join companies and leave managers.
Most of us, during our careers, have had a wide range of managers: some good, some bad – many somewhere in between. During my time in multinational corporations, I have had managers who empowered me to do great things, inspired me through clear vision, allowed for risk-taking to support innovation. I have had managers who listened, asked questions and coached me in my decision making.
And I have had those who didn’t.
In today’s business climate, norms are changing and all of us are expecting more from our leadership. Top-down, authoritative styles are no longer adequate. As employees and customers, we expect leaders to be more collaborative, more authentic and more engaged.
Technology is one influencer – as users of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, we have grown accustomed to a more dynamic, engaging conversation with those around us. Companies started participating to get an edge over their competitors – but as we move further into the 21st century, this type of conversation is becoming expected. It is no longer the differentiator – it is the norm.
The so-called millennial generation also contributes – this generation demands a flatter, more agile organization and as this generation joins the workforce in droves, they bring new cultural expectations.
Finally we are a more global workforce. More and more companies are working across international boundaries, using technology to communicate and share. Leaders frequently have remote employees, who they meet face-to-face infrequently. These employees need to stay connected and informed, and a more frequent, conversational style of leaderships supports that culture of connection.
Social Leaders are those who are responding successfully to these changes. They are adopting their style to be more conversational. They don’t have the one-way top-down style so prevalent in the past but instead engage with their employees, their customers, and society in new ways. They are creating a culture of openness and connection in their organizations. They are responding to their customers’ needs. They are engaging with government officials to understand the broader society needs and how their organizations can contribute positively.
Sometimes these changes are leveraging technology – Leaders are using tools like blogs and Yammer and Chatter to talk to their employees, ask questions, share best practices and learn from their organizations. They are tweeting and commenting on posts from their customers. But this is not about being tech-savvy: Social behaviours do not have to be dependent on technology at all. Social leaders walk the hallways at work, getting to know their employees more personally, asking questions and understanding the true sentiment in their organizations. They hold roundtables to get the pulse of their organizations at all levels. They participate in what is often called Reverse Mentoring, where they become a mentee of a millennial employee to learn the behaviours and expectations of this employee base first hand.
There is no doubt that this more collaborative style of leadership brings benefits around innovation, productivity and engagement, but these behaviours don’t always come naturally. Leaders may need coaching and support to develop these skills and to learn to connect in new ways.
As you go about your day today, pay attention to the leaders you encounter. How many of them are being social? How are they demonstrating this? And what is the impact on you?
How many questions do you ask in a day?
Questions are the foundation of conversation. Most of us ask them without even thinking about it; they are a fundamental part of human connection. Without them, there is monologue, an endless stream of thoughts. Or, alternatively, there is silence.
In John Green’s novel Paper Towns, the main character Quentin says:
“The thing about Margo Roth Spiegelman is that really all I could ever do was let her talk, and then when she stopped talking encourage her to go on, due to the facts that 1. I was incontestably in love with her, and 2. She was absolutely unprecedented in every way, and 3. She never really asked me any question so the only way to avoid silence was to keep her talking.”
Questions are essential, not only in our personal relationships but also in the work environment. As a sales leader, asking questions is a fundamental part of solution selling, or understanding the customer’s needs before promoting a specific product. As a people manager, asking questions engages a team, helps to increase creativity and innovation, and helps to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Questions help leaders deal with ambiguity and work toward clarity. They help individuals thrive in times of change. When we engage with customers, questions help to ensure what we are offering, building or creating meets an existing need.
What is interesting, however, is that despite all of these relatively obvious benefits, leaders today are not really encouraged to question. At a certain point in our careers, we are rewarded for having solutions and sharing those solutions through “vision” and “strategy.” Leaders are expected to be experts. Questions, which have so much value, can be seen as a sign of weakness. And, as a result of this, we forget the art of questioning.
In today’s social climate, where dialogue and conversation are vital and expected, this needs to change. Questions can help us solve problems, think through issues, and get to solutions. And maybe most importantly, they are what make us social. We need leaders who start every engagement with a question, who are willing to ask why. And who see that asking these questions will help move the organization forward.
Therefore, my question for you today is this:
What is your highest priority and what question can you ask others to move this priority forward?
How often are we asking the wrong questions? We ask questions to achieve greater understanding, more insight, better results. We ask questions to solve problems. But what if the problems we are trying to solve are the wrong ones? What if the real problems are sitting buried under the surface?
If we don’t identify the right problem, will we ask the right questions? Or will we focus on the wrong ones?
Scott Dannemiller, in the Huffington Post, says that as parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question. As modern parents we fill our children’s social schedules with piano and Chinese and hockey. We pressure our children to practice; we put them in extra lessons and fill their extra-curricular lives. And the question he says we’re asking is:
“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”
Dannemiller claims that fear is driving us to try to solve the wrong problem. Instead of constantly pushing for more and better, we should slow down, think about what we really want for our children and ask new questions, which consider unintended consequences and underlying motivations. Questions like “What do we really want for our children?” and “What do our children miss out on if we push them this way?”
This challenge isn’t one only faced by parents. We face this in business and in other aspects of personal life. We spend six months – or two years – in meetings discussing a challenge at work, only to find that we haven’t made progress because we’re focused on the wrong thing. We push and push ourselves to improve our work performance, only to realize that a different role is much more fulfilling. Or we stay in a bad relationship and keep asking ourselves what else we can do to make things better, only to realize the problem is that it’s not a relationship we should fix. Once we find the right problem, we ask better questions, and we get to solutions.
If you feel stuck, and you’re not making progress on something – be it your child’s violin lessons or your team’s performance – go back to the questions you are asking and the problem you are trying to solve. If you are asking yourself “Why won’t she practice?” consider asking new questions, such as:
- Why must she practice?
- What are the consequences if she doesn’t practice?
- What are the consequences if I force her to do this every day?
- What am I trying to achieve with this?
- Why is she resisting?
- What else might she be doing during this practice time?
- Why do I care so much about this?
- What are my motivations?
If you are asking yourself why your team isn’t meeting one of its targets, consider the same process. Move from the questions you have been asking and the solutions you have been trying and go back to a broader set of questions to try to identify the root cause. Taking these steps will help you to move forward.