‘Do you want to play Questions?’ (your secret weapon)

Have you ever read/saw Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead?  It’s an amazing play turned into a very good movie about two of the throwaway characters in Hamlet whose claim to fame is that they are outwitted by the brooding prince and executed in England.

In one scene, the two play a game called “Questions” – they must, not so surprisingly, only speak in the form of questions. Hesitation, statements, or non sequiturs are not allowed.  If someone goofs, the other person scores a point (or forfeits, or however you want to play it).

In the play, the scene is meant to further illustrate the limits of language and futility in seeking existential knowledge.  But what it also does is remind us of the POWER of asking questions.

As leaders and as employees, we can benefit from playing our own version Questions when holding important conversations or when confronted with a potentially sensitive situation.  These conversations are filled with potential land mines – your innocent statement or observation could set the other person off because you didn’t know where they were coming from.If-you-ask-cp1weq

Forcing yourself to focus on questions rather than statements has a number of benefits.  You signal you’re willing to listen. Good questioning invites the other person in.  Questioning indicates you’re seeking understanding, rather than imposing your interpretation of events. When you ask questions, you actually have to listen to what the other person is saying, so that your next question makes sense in the context of the conversation.  And an added bonus, asking questions increases the chance that the other person might find their own solution.

There is, however, an art to using the questioning technique effectively.  After all, simply asking “How did that make you feel?” or “So you’re saying that customer was rude to you?” can sound condescending if that’s all you say.  Just follow the Questions rules:

  • No statements: Move the conversation forward with a question rather than your own statement. [And yes, I know that you will have to use SOME statements.  Just try to minimize them.]
  • No repetition: Stay engaged, pay attention.  If you find yourself repeating the other person’s words back to them, or ask the same question over and over, RE-ENGAGE.
  • No synonyms: It’s just a fancy way of repeating.  Show off.
  • No rhetoric: The intent of the questions is to seek clarity, not to stump the other person.  Does this mean every question you ask will be answered? No. But you should give them a fair chance.

So the next time you are in a scenario that could get messy, try following Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s example.  Give yourself a deduction every time you break the rules and see how it turns out.  You might be surprised that all it took to defuse the situation was a few good questions.

“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

How can you afford your Whac-A-Mole lifestyle? (hint: you can’t)

You’ve seen them.

Running from place to place.  Conducting drive-bys at every cube, leaving unclear action items in their wake – and frustrating employees everywhere.

These are the Whac-A-Moles. And they are hurting your business.

In case you’ve never been to a midway, Whac-A-Mole is an entertaining game in which the player (you) get to use a giant soft mallet to smack (whac) moles that pop out of holes at random intervals.  It’s oddly satisfying.

That little moment of happiness you feel when you bonk that mole on the head in a game is the same feeling that the Whac-A-Mole Leader gets when they run around the office reacting to every little thing.  I mean…I assume that it’s the same because I can’t imagine why you would want to work that way.  It sounds exhausting.

Just as exhausting as it sounds to BE a Whac-A-Mole Leader, it can be even worse to be AROUND the Whac-A-Mole Leader.  Any attempts at prioritizing your day goes out the window.  You rejoice when the Whac-A-Mole is out of the office or in an all day meeting (though you dread the next day when they’re back with action items).  It can make for a very frustrating work environment.

Think about the costs of Whac-A-Mole Leadershipwhac-a-mole-new-version

  • Lost Efficiency: When managers rush in and demand immediate action, the employees who receive that demand have to stop what they’re doing and respond.  Once they’re done, they then have to figure out where they were, which costs time and brain power.
  • Lost Vision: A manager who reacts may think they have a vision, but really they are just reacting to things that happen.  By reacting to everything happening rather than having a plan, Whac-A-Mole Leaders abdicate their strategic vision to the will of others.
  • Lost Credibility: Think about it. If you’re a Whac-A-Mole Leader, your team has no time to do their normal work and are forced to rush through the “emergencies,” and you don’t have your own vision – how much credibility do you think you’d have? Your team will think you have no real leadership of your own, and your peers will take advantage of you because they know you will whac any mole they throw at you.

There is hope for you yet

It is possible to break the Whac-A-Mole cycle, but you have to commit to it.  

FIrst, admit you have a problem.  Seriously.  If you think you DON’T have a problem or have been told you do by a couple of people and don’t believe it, ask to have a 360 feedback survey conducted.  That should give you enough perspective to realize how pervasive the issue is.

Next, wean yourself from the need to react to everything. Stop reacting and start thinking – about your vision, about your team’s priorities, about the true needs of the business.

Because if you continue to react to everything, the last thing you’ll react to is the fact you got fired.

Are you a reformed Whac-A-Mole Leader?  Did you survive one?  Share your stories in the comments!!

A little disruption is good for the soul

In Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, she shares the story of the Murry family – specifically Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and their quest to find their missing scientist father.  I won’t recount the entire plot here (if you need a summary, here it is.  Seriously, just go read the book!), but there are two important things I want to point out – Meg struggles to fit in, and Meg is challenged to save her brother from the powerful IT…whose one power is the ability to make EVERYONE fit in.

In the story, Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace travel to the planet Camazotz, a picture of conformity:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns.  The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray….In front of all the houses children were playing….As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball.  As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes.  Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical.  Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

Not to get all dramatic about it, but the truth is that many companies are like Camazotz.  The denizens of Corporate America are all too happy to allow someone else “to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decisions.”  Unsurprisingly, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are unnerved by all the sameness.  To them, it’s creepy and unnatural. Why?  Because if everything is the SAME, how would you know if something is good or bad? 

That which moves us forward requires a lack of conformity.  Progress, by its very nature, is disruptive.  It interrupts the status quo.  It challenges us to bounce the ball to a different rhythm from everyone else.  Without disruption, we would be drones.

It’s hard to embrace our inner disruptor, though.  We are surrounded by people who will defend their right to a boring, thought-free, risk-free existence.  And, like IT, these people are often in leadership roles. Why? Because the more you have, the harder you will work to defend it.evolution-change

At one point, Meg and Charles Wallace see a little boy who bounces his ball out of rhythm – you know, as a little boy would play with a ball.  Rather than this being seen as a natural thing, it’s considered an Aberration:

The door of his house opened and out ran one of the mother figures.  She looked wildly up and down the street, saw the children and put her hand to her mouth as though to stifle a scream.

When you have chosen to trade your free will to avoid responsibility, it would appear you have also chosen to live in fear.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle to work with people whose default setting is “don’t rock the boat.”  That doesn’t mean I’m an anarchist – it means I value individuality, risk taking, and looking forward.  I believe that what got us here won’t get us to the next level.  Gosh darn it, I’m a disruptor.

To further disruption in your environment, keep the following in mind:

  • Know your currency: Charles Wallace, intuitive genius that he is, is eventually seduced by the power of IT – not because he doesn’t want responsibility but because IT flatters his intelligence.  Many of us have trigger points or other elements that we hold dear and will defend to the (metaphorical) death. Be aware of yours and establish your personal boundaries so you don’t automatically go into defensive mode when you should be embracing a challenge.
  • Use frustration to your advantage: In the book, Meg says, “When I’m mad I don’t have room to be scared.” She uses one strong emotion to give herself courage to ignore her fear.  We all run into frustrations at work.  We get angry.  Would you rather sit and stew? Wouldn’t it be better to use that anger and frustration to give yourself the courage to try something new?
  • Understand WHY disruption is needed:  Meg saves Charles Wallace because she knows IT doesn’t understand love – her motive was purse, her cause just, her disruption a necessity.Change for change’s sake isn’t necessarily a good thing.  It should be intentional.  WHY do you disrupt?  Is it to encourage new thinking and behaviors?  Or are you just being a contrarian? True disruptors use their powers for good, not evil.
  • Keep trying: Disruptors understand that success doesn’t always happen on the first try.  It takes persistence, adaptability, influence, charm, support, help, failure, learnings, repetition, new leadership…all of it.  But it’s worth it.

We keep talking about the importance of authenticity, letting your freak flag fly, being yourself at work.  If you believe in that, be open to a little disruption now and then.  It’s good for you.

“Maybe I don’t like being different,” Meg said, “but I don’t want to be like everybody else, either.”
– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Think disruption sounds cool? Want to explore your inner disruptor? If you are in the Denver area, join us for DisruptHR Denver – a FREE event on April 9, 2014, exploring new was to think about people and talent.  Visit www.disrupthr.co/denver for more information and to RSVP!