You need to avoid the typical temptations to be a bossy boss if you want to build a more powerful, capable team. Leading well requires being careful about why and when to tell your people what to do, versus asking them questions to draw out their own best thinking.
Generally, the “why” a leader should ask questions, versus give answers or direction, is simple: To enable / allow the person to hunt down their own solutions this time, and on their own in the future. This builds autonomy and maximizes them as a resource to you and your organization.
The “when to tell them the answer” is also simple: 1) If the person is lacking a key piece of information or training necessary to solve the problem, or 2) if they are in the path of significant harm or failure. I say “significant” harm or failure because a small amount of experienced pain is a better lesson than any amount of bossing or direction. In fact, I suggest clients let their capable, motivated people “fail small” in order to experience that pain and take its lesson to heart permanently.
Knowing all this, even the best managers or leaders STILL find themselves being too bossy. I see it all the time in my practice. I help clients overcome this by introducing them to (and helping them practice navigating) these six temptations:
1. Being the Answer Boss
When your person asks you a direct question, it’s tempting to answer it, rather than ask one in return. Barring a knowledge gap or significant harm, don’t be tempted to answer their question right away, particularly if you want to help them think for themselves, and lessen any dependence on you. Instead, ask one in return.
2. Being the Opinionator
When you’ve asked great questions, and the person has told you their story, it’s tempting to render your own opinion or judgment – particularly if you see they’re seeking that. Instead, why not ask them to form their own conclusions, with questions like: “What are your major conclusions here?” / “What would you do to resolve it?” / “What ideas would you share with one of your people who came to you with that situation?” Putting your own opinions or diagnosis aside in favor of drawing out your people’s best thinking (for themselves) yields future gains for you and your organization.
3. Avoiding the Parent Trap
When someone tells you their problem or situation, and you’ve experienced the same thing and have your own “success,” “cautionary,” or “lesson-learned,” story to tell about it, it’s very tempting to tell them YOUR similar story to save them a step or two. You can do that, but it won’t stick with them as well as if they learn (or discover) their own lesson about it, with you asking facilitative questions.
4. Asking Annoying Questions
If a smart manager or leader hears someone describe what seems remedial or dumb, it can be tempting to ask unhelpful questions like “why didn't you do it this way?” Why questions, particularly about the past, are rarely going to yield results. Ask instead “what” and “how” questions about the present to the future, and you will be furthering someone’s ability to solve and act on that solution.
5. Having Something to Prove
If you’re new in a role, or otherwise sense you need to prove yourself (or prove something) with your people, it can be tempting to try doing that by telling them your smart or clever thoughts. Leaders don’t have to prove their value – instead, they can prove their leadership by drawing the best out of their team. That happens by asking great questions.
6. Avoiding the Temptation to Beat the Clock
Perhaps the biggest culprit behind being bossy is the rationalization or desire to “solve the problem for the person quickly -- in the interest of time or expedience. After all, why let the thing drag on like a ball and chain?! Just tell them the answer, and they can get it done. While this shortcut works in the short term, in the longer term it actually makes everything with that person take longer, because they will come back to you for the answers, again and again. It breeds dependence. Instead, taking longer in the short term by asking them the right questions to help them figure it out for themselves will be a gift that keeps on giving.