Just Ask

Humility and the New Leader

By Don Jacobson

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Early in my career, when I was a newly minted supervisor, I thought I had to have all the answers and all the good ideas. I feared that admitting otherwise would make me look weak--and that showing weakness would undermine my authority. I have since observed that a lot of new supervisors share these same fears. Many never overcome them. In my case, I realized early on that no one is more acutely aware of my shortcomings than the people who work for me. Once I began to acknowledge my shortcomings I found that my team actually respected me more. That revelation was liberating; it enabled me to get over myself and focus on serving the team and accomplishing the mission.

"I realized early on that no one is more acutely aware of my shortcomings than the people who work for me."

As a manager, one of the most powerful things you can do to build trust with your team is to demonstrate that you know you are human and don’t have all the answers. A simple way to do so is to ask your team certain types of questions. My shorthand for this approach is “Just Ask.”

  • Just Ask…for their ideas.

  • Just Ask…for their input.

  • Just Ask…for their feedback.

Ask for Ideas to Drive Innovation

One of the first things I tell new front-line employees is that I want their ideas. To show that I mean it, I include a specific objective in their annual work plan asking them to take a hard look at the whole operation and make recommendations for improvement. This has several benefits. First, many employees find it motivating to know that their ideas matter. Also, the front-line employees--who do the real work of the organization and know where the pain points are--become multipliers for the continuous improvement efforts of the management team.

To further reinforce this mandate, I make it clear to my management team that I expect them to create a climate that elicits the creativity and ideas of their team members.

Wake-up Call Alert: If most of the new ideas that your team implements are coming from managers, you are probably not doing enough to engage front-line employees in the process of continuous improvement.

Ask for Input to Make Better Decisions

One of your main functions as a manager is to make decisions. It’s important to get the team’s input on decisions that will impact them in order to gain their buy-in. A diverse range of viewpoints will also help you, as a manager, to understand more sides of the issue and mitigate negative consequences of the decision.

Wake-Up Call Alert: If your team members always agree with you or fail to provide meaningful input, it might mean that you have surrounded yourself with “Yes-men” or that for some reason your team has concluded that you do not really want their candid opinions. Keep asking for input and make it clear you mean it.

Ask for Feedback to Identify Your Blind Spots

Feedback is a scary thing to many managers. But as leaders, we cannot grow without it. One of the biggest challenges for every leader is recognizing the gap between our intentions and our impact on the team. For example, I work hard to create a positive work climate, but I have vivid memories of a time when one of my direct reports came to tell me that something I had done had caused a firestorm among my team. His feedback enabled me to address the issue and, in fact, turn the situation into a positive.

Wake-Up Call Alert: If you ask your team for feedback and they seem unwilling to suggest meaningful areas for improvement, it could mean that your employees do not believe that you want their honest feedback. It might mean that they don’t believe you will heed the feedback. Worse still, it could mean that they are afraid of you. (It is virtually impossible to have candor when fear is present.) It takes time, persistence, and open communication to build the trust required to elicit honest feedback from your subordinates.

None of this involves abdicating responsibility. As managers, we are still responsible for making the big decisions and are ultimately accountable for outcomes. By rejecting the archetype of the invulnerable “strong leader,” we can more effectively foster trust, engage the energy and creativity of our teams, and make them a tremendous multiplier for our efforts to improve the operation.

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