If you want to know, ask!

~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i” May 2009 ~
If you want to know, ask!


We managers know that the best information available to us resides in other people. What we must do, is tap into it.

Being perceptive is hard work ”“ or is it?

Last time, I suggested you consider your vacation, or any extended time away, a golden opportunity for identifying emerging leadership (from this past Tuesday: While the Big Cat is Away). You do want to know what happened while you were gone, and why. You want to know who championed the best ideas which emerged, and who took the baton and ran with it.

We’ve previously spoken in these blog pages of leadership as the workplace discipline of creating energy. Well, you don’t always have to single-handedly create new energy; in fact, you shouldn’t. Alaka‘i leaders will also identify where workplace energy is, and when they qualify it as positive and conducive to mission and vision, they throw their support behind those who generate that energy. They will recognize that those people are essentially saying, “I am ready and willing to lead with you!”

Today, let’s talk about the practical how-to of the suggestion. How do you figure out what happened while you were gone, especially when everyone may have already put it behind them and moved on —or worse, they misunderstand your motives, and deliberately hide things from you, hoping that you won’t notice them? There is probably a lot of middle ground between those two things as well: People are not actively hiding things from you, but they simply don’t feel what’s past is as important, and they’ve reduced it to trivial detail unaware that you consider it still-important input.

What’s the best approach of the Alaka‘i manager in finding out what’s occurred? Going back to our vocabulary once more, and in the context of an organizational culture:

  • Leadership is the workplace discipline of creating energy connected to a meaningful vision.
  • Management is the workplace discipline of channeling that mission-critical energy into optimal production and usefulness.

Great managers cannot channel good energies they are unaware of.

The Way I See It #7

An underrated investigative technique

There is much wisdom in a phrase we largely say with tongue in cheek: Ask, and ye shall receive.

We managers can easily slip into whining that “We’re not mind-readers,” but then at other times we can demonstrate that we haven’t given up on trying to be! We’ll use investigative techniques that can appear sneaky and manipulative. The result of these two conflicting behaviors is quite a mixed message. At best we confuse everyone; at worse we cause them to distrust us.

The most effective way for you to get the lay of the land in your workplace topography, is to tap into the collective perspectives of your employees and business partnerships. Their perspective truly IS your reality.

The easiest way for you to do that is to set up a conversation, whether one-on-one or within a larger team huddle or group meeting, and ask them what you want to know. Preface your inquiry with telling them why you’re asking so there is no second-guessing your motivations.

For example”

I’ve just done that with my own team working within a Ho‘ohana Publishing project that continued during my vacation without me. Here are a few points about this simple strategy of asking:

  • I got them together virtually via a message within our web-based project management space, which requested that they each respond with a 5-item list of briefly-written single sentences which describe to me what happened within the project while I was gone.
  • This is something we’ve done on an on-going basis: I am confident they fully understand my motivations. So my preface was quite short, yet it still stated why I asked, and what my intentions were, for I welcomed the opportunity to repeat and reinforce the m.o. of our working culture.
  • With this particular project there are certain things I am hoping to hear about, and I explicitly listed them as “possible thought triggers.” I am not testing them, and I don’t want them to feel they are being tested or graded: I am sincerely looking for specific inputs.
  • My preface included a message of thanks, letting them know I greatly appreciated the way they all contributed to my vacation being as worry-free as it was. Rather than having that mahalo sound perfunctory, I talked about specific things I already knew about and did sincerely value. This also challenges them to dig below the surface, and not repeat what I already know about in their lists.
  • I’ve found a list of 5 to be a good number, not too short, not too long —relatively easy for them to compose, and manageable enough for me to read and respond to (there are 5 to 7 people on most of the teams I work with.) With 5 items, their lists will usually reveal items of lesser importance that can be good documentation historically, serving as a point of reference when future shifts happen. When ranked, these lists can also illustrate how different people within a team rank their priorities.
  • There was a part two within my request for their responses. I asked that secondly, they identify the single item out of their list of 5 occurrences which they feel is most exciting to them: What on their lists do they most wish to continue working on? Excitement is a symptom of positive energy, and it hints to self-motivations.
  • For now I simply want them to identify that single occurrence or idea, but I let them know that we will continue with a discussion in person or on the telephone, and therefore they needn’t explain in too much detail yet: I want to save them the time-consuming written work, for I know more conversation will ensue, and we can cover much more ground in the two-way when it happens.
  • I set a deadline for their responses, and I ended with a proposed date and time for our follow-up conversations. As part of that agenda-to-come, I noted that I am eager to learn if they would like to assume a leadership role with the item they propose we continue, or if they will decide to be a champion for the change suggested by another leader among their peers.

The message is very clear to them, that within our mission-critical project team, being anyone but a leader or champion is not an option I am that interested in, however as you can tell, what I’ve written of above is very much about management technique and style too. That is the Alaka‘i work culture we have now have, a balance which is primarily between self-management and leadership initiatives, and it is one which continues to create personal energy for me daily as their manager.

It is energy I can invest into a great variety of things now that I’m back at work too. When I ask the right questions my attention is focused on the right things and I waste very little time with catch-up. My direction from this point on is easy to take, and my team can feel good about helping me get there so quickly.

It feels really good to be back.

Let’s talk story.
Any thoughts to share?

Photo credit: The Way I See It #7 by Rosa Say.

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