By Audrey Epstein
My adult son came home from college for Spring Break last week. He did nothing. I mean nothing. He stayed out until 2am with his friends, slept until the middle of the afternoon, binge watched TV, and enjoyed letting us cook his meals and take him shopping and out for dinner. I must admit I was somewhat appalled by his laziness and lack of industriousness. How could he do nothing? By day four I could no longer hold my tongue. My “shouldn’t yous” and “why don’t yous” in that special mom tone definitely came out.
He was both surprised and indignant. “Mom, I just had 3 midterms, wrote 20 pages of research papers, all while holding down my 25-hour a week job. I want to do nothing. Why are you hassling me?” I felt taken aback, but I started to think….is there something wrong with doing nothing?
In my executive coaching work doing nothing is not a theme I have to tackle with the leaders I support. Instead, these leaders are often too intense, too aggressive, too impatient, and too type A. They don’t know how to turn it off or unwind. They are sending their teams emails at 6am on Sunday or 11pm on Thursday. And even though they report to me that they tell their teams, “I just like to work this way. I don’t expect you to respond to me outside of working hours,” their actions speak much louder than their words and the tone is set. Work is first. Work is everything. Work is 24/7.
Three things happen when leaders take a break:
- They gain perspective. Distance from a business challenge can often help us resize its impact or rethink its importance.
- They reset and recharge. Contrary to the beliefs of some executives I’ve met, everyone needs sleep. Everyone needs time to reconnect with friends and family. And a little coddling once in a while can be a really nice thing.
- They stop focusing for just a little while on achieving and instead can just be. Many leaders struggle with being present. They don’t stop to enjoy their success. They are always on to the next hurdle. When we are constantly focused on what’s next, we often forget to feel gratitude for what we have today. We feel like we are never quite good enough.
And, when leaders take a little time off to do nothing it is not only great for them, but for their teams as well. (And I don’t mean being “on vacation” while checking your email 20 times a day and calling in for meetings.):
- It forces delegation.
- It lets more junior team members step up and take on something for the first time.
- It demonstrates trust in the team.
- It allows team members to plan and achieve their work without guidance.
- It forces team members to work together collaboratively and hold each other accountable.
Leaders need to invest the time in breaking the habit of being too busy. Not only will they reap the benefits of taking a break, their team will as well.
Recently, a colleague and I were at a dinner function with a group of leaders from a client company. We found ourselves seated at a table with a new member of the executive team who we were meeting for the first time. Waiting for the plated meals to arrive, we eased into the conversation with small talk about sports and weather, and then we went deeper inquiring about his family, his career, his thoughts on the industry.
When the dinner wrapped up 45 minutes later, my colleague and I had learned a lot about him. We had learned about his years working abroad, his days as a partner at an IT consulting firm and his time on Wall Street. Yet he had learned nothing about me or my colleague. In 45 minutes of conversation, he hadn’t asked either of us a single question.
Sadly, this common, self-absorbed style of relating has reached new, alarming levels. Social interactions no longer seem to be two-way. Whether with friends, colleagues, new acquaintances or even family members, the common courtesies of asking questions and listening have given way to an urgent need to speak and be heard.
In my work as an executive coach, I try to talk no more than 30% of the time, giving my clients the majority of the airtime. When I am talking, I’m mostly asking questions. By giving my clients that airtime, I’m able to understand their challenges, relate to their needs and extend the empathy they badly want and need. For me, listening is how l learn. For my clients, it’s a way to show I value them.
A recent Harvard study zeros in on the scale of this problem: People spend most of their time during conversations talking about their own viewpoints and tend to self-promote when meeting people for the first time. In contrast, high question-askers—those who probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked.
Of course, being liked is not the main goal of conversation, but it can be the starting point for healthy relationships. The people in our lives want to feel valued and validated. And asking people questions does this and more. In my work with leaders and teams, I’ve learned that asking genuine questions and listening to what people have to say can have these benefits:
The job of the leader is to ensure that bad news surfaces fast. The sooner the toughest issues get raised, the sooner they get fixed. Yet many leaders I observe put more energy into telling and convincing than into listening and learning. Leaders are often mistakenly viewed as the experts who have all the answers.
At higher levels, the worse it seems to get. Many of the CEOs and SVPs I work with are shielded from the real issues. They have failed to create a culture of openness and candor, which must start with their own curiosity and interest in others—with their willingness to ask and listen.
These same leaders often seek counsel from their coaches, asking, “How do I develop better relationships with my people? How can we increase employee engagement? How can I show people they are really valued? How can we create a culture of learning and innovation?”
Fortunately, there’s a simple approach that doesn’t require a big budget. Here are four ways to get started:
As a leader, you are well served to ask the right questions versus always having the right answers. Try it for a couple of weeks and see what happens.
November 15, 2018
What are you focused on in your current role?
What do you love most about your job or about working here?
What’s most stressful for you?
What common goals or aspirations might we share?
What could get in the way of a successful working relationship for us?
Where could we have conflicting goals, priorities, timelines or needs?
What are our personality types? How do they show up at work?
How can we work better together?
Are there some agreements or norms that would allow us to be more effective in working together (e.g., frequency or mode of check-in)?
Be brave...be the one who starts the conversation!