|Sharing Ideas with Authority Figures|
When Carolyn Li came into my office for her first coaching session she looked seriously concerned. She had just stepped into a senior role and while she possessed many of the skills for success, she was frustrated in her attempts to bond with her new team.
"I can't get them to take the initiative and come up with solutions on their own," she complained.
This is a problem that is rampant in China and to varying degrees throughout Asia. For the Chinese, a Confucian value that runs from womb to tomb translates as: "Don't interrupt your Father when he is speaking".
Classrooms in China emphasise rote learning, in part because to be literate one needs to memorise about 6,000 different characters, and beyond that, the style of teaching is to tell and test. Students are expected to pay close attention in class so that when they are tested they can recite, as accurately as possible, what the teacher has taught them. This shows respect to the teacher and demonstrates that one has been paying attention in class. As a result there is almost never 'debate' in the classroom and this mindset often carries on in the workplace.
At its best this encourages children, students and staff to appreciate the wisdom and experience of parents, teachers and senior staff.
At its worst it creates a barrier to understanding as it feels impolite to ask for clarification and can dam the flow of innovation by discouraging any ideas that might not be in line with Father's thinking.
It should come as no surprise then that when the boss asks a question, staff rack their brains trying to remember if the answer has already supplied and perhaps they were not paying attention.
I've conducted a sort of dip stick poll and the answers should horrify the bosses: "I always wonder if it is a trap." This staff member wondered if she was being tested, not asked for an opinion or fresh solution.
Another common response is, "If I could only get into my bosses mind and see what he is thinking'. This goes directly to not offering a contradictory idea.
So, when Carolyn came in with the desire to get her team to speak up proactively, we began exploring alternative approaches that might create a safer environment in which to be "interrupted", so to speak.
I have a large brass tray that is filled with picture cards, many of them sent from art galleries and some cut from calendars or greeting cards. I asked Carolyn to choose a card that represented a possible solution to a problem she was facing at work and then asked her to tell me why she chose the card. After we finished the exercise, we discussed how she might use this 'talking through pictures' approach with her team to help them share some of their ideas.
We tried it out with an actor who role-played a staff member and it became apparent that Carolyn was not leaving enough time after asking a question for the actor to respond. "I feel her impatience and it seems better not to respond," the actor noted.
During our next coaching session Carolyn walked in smiling. She could hardly wait to tell me of her success.
"I used the picture cards and every member of the team participated!" she exclaimed. "I think they find it much more comfortable to tell me how the picture represents a possible solution and it accomplishes the same thing — I get to hear what they are thinking. I also am trying to pause longer after I ask them for suggestions. That's hard for me because I'm always in a hurry, but I'll get better at it with practice."
Don't interrupt your children when they're thinking... now that's an innovative idea.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 05/04/2012.
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