Inside Small Business: Beyond face value - Michelle Gibbings

In today’s fast paced environment, business leaders are often expected to have all the answers. However in a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity there are many unknowns, and it’s not possible for leaders to have all the answers all of the time.

In the Inside Small Business magazine, I share my thoughts on the challenges that leaders face in today’s frantically paced world, the dangers of taking things at face value, and the idea that asking questions is not a sign of weakness but actually the hallmark of influential leadership.

You can read the full article here.

Asking questions is not a sign of weakness, and good leadership in fact involves the art of asking the right questions.

In today’s frantically paced world, there is often an expectation that leaders need to have answers at their fingertips, and that it is not okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”. However, in a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity there are many unknowns. It’s not possible for leaders to have all the answers all the time.

Additionally, we are surrounded by more information than ever and it is becoming harder to know which sources to trust. We are bombarded with information, disinformation and loads and loads of data.

Discernment and good judgement are critical, particularly because in a complex, ambiguous and interconnected world everything may not be what it seems.

When we take something on face value we may be missing key pieces of information or overlooking unseen options. And when leaders hold dogmatic views and are certain about their opinion, they open themselves and others to decision failures.

History is littered with stories of leaders who thought they had the answers, ignored advice and, consequently, made poor decisions – from the failure of Kodak to AOL’s disastrous purchase of Time Warner to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the demise of Arrium Steel.

“Being dogmatic is not a positive attribute,” says University of Manchester advanced fellow in particle physics Brian Cox. “Being certain about things is actually not a positive thing either.

“I think that somehow our societies have got into this position where people feel that certainty and strength and this kind of ‘I make decisions’ is a trait to be valued. When leaders are certain they are right, they close themselves off to other ideas and different opinions. This can lead to myopic and poor decision making, because of the bias we all have in how we process information and make decisions.”

Mindset Critical

Standford academic Carol Dweck has confirmed this in her research on fixed and growth mindsets. She found that people who have a fixed mindset see intelligence as static – a fixed trait. As a result, they always look smart and appear as though they have all the answers.

They believe success is based on talent alone, not work. This means they will avoid challenges and give up more easily. They also ignore feedback, which they see as criticism, and feel threatened by the success of others.

In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe intelligence can be developed through hard work and effort. Consequently, they are more eager to embrace learning, take on challenges and persist, despite setbacks. They love learning and usually have higher resilience. They are also more willing to learn from others and receive feedback.

In her book Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential, Dweck highlights companies that have failed because of their leader’s fixed mindset.

In contrast, leaders who are comfortable with uncertainty have a growth mindset and are more willing to embrace the art of curiosity. They recognise that good decision-making comes from asking lots of questions, not finding the one right answer.

And that’s where scepticism plays its part.

Signs of Curiosity

According to the dictionary, to be sceptical is to be not easily convinced or to have doubts or reservations. It is easy to pain the sceptic in a negative light, as the person who is cynical and therefore to be dismissed.

In fact, however, being sceptical means you are curious. It means you recognise that you don’t have all the answers and so are open to challenge and rebate, rather than having a fixed idea or opinion. Sceptics question. They think critically and ponder ideas. They reflect on what is really happening.

In doing this, they practise the three Cs:

  • Considering what is happening around them and reflecting on what they are seeing and hearing, and therefore taking an informed approach to what action should be taken
  • Challenging assumptions they and others may have, to ensure they are making a good decision and are being open to dissenting views and outlier opinions
  • Checking their facts and interpretations of those facts, being on the lookout for bias, which may adversely impact their thought processes and decisions

Core to all this is being able to ask a good question.

This is not about asking a question to get the answer they want – leaders instead need to ask questions that:

  • clarify their understanding
  • help them seek out different ideas
  • ensure outlier opinions and diverse views are heard
  • make sure the trade-offs from decisions are clearly articulated
  • uncover elements that may be missing from the conversation
  • ensure the discussion has examined the issues from multiple perspectives
  • challenge their own thinking processes, and those of the people around them.

By asking questions, a leader shows they are interested in the ideas being shared and open to new information and thoughts. They are also welcoming divergent views and encouraging debate and discussion – all characteristics that are critical for successful leaders.

So, instead of encouraging leaders to supply answers, encourage them to ask the right question. French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said a wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

Being open to asking the right question is a hallmark of influential leadership. So, what question will you ask next?