What do the best, most innovative managers have in common? It's tempting to think that it's their vision, drive, or relentless pursuit of their goals. While all of these things are important to leading effectively, they're not the entire story. According to author and consultant Michael Bungay Stanier, the best managers are great coaches. They are committed to helping those around them unleash their best work, and they are willing to devote the extra time and energy to help them do so.
In a recent podcast interview, Bungay Stanier told me that many of the best managers develop a coaching habit. Rather than simply telling others what they should do, they are committed to asking questions that help those they lead come to their own conclusions. This builds a stronger, more accountable organization, and ultimately leads to better and more diverse ideas.
Your Team's Culture Is Really Just a Collection Of Habits
People often complain about how their organization's culture is a giant hurdle to innovation and is unwilling to allow outside ideas. According to Bungay Stanier, what we define as the "culture" of an organization is nothing more than a set of habitual behaviors that everyone engages in. If you make a concerted effort to identify and change those habits, you can then change the very culture of the team. It all begins with a handful of individuals who are willing to do things that challenge the status quo rather than reinforcing it.
Bungay Stanier notes that the best managers reinforce triggers that help those they lead identify useful new behaviors. For example, "When (some event) happens, instead of (bad behavior/habit), I will (good behavior/habit)." Identifying the trigger event, the bad habit, and the good one allows you to begin to change your bad cultural habits into good ones over time. Below are three new habits that Stanier and I discussed in the interview.
The Habit Of Asking Questions
When the stakes are high, many managers feel the need to control the conversation in order to get the behavior they want. However, Bungay Stanier says that strategic questions are a far better way to help someone understand the situation and a much more effective way of helping them generate new ideas. "When you are in advice-giving mode, you are controlling the conversation, but you might be wasting the other person's time," he says. "However, if you shift to question-asking, you are giving the other person the chance to define the conversation." This results in a stronger, more accountable team, and ultimately more ownership over the work.
The Habit Of Seeking The Real Challenge
It's tempting in high-pressure situations to lock onto the first challenge you find, and attack it. However, Bungay Stanier says that this can often lead to blindness to the real challenge you are facing. "If you can just resist the need to rush into action, and get a little more curious about the real challenge, it makes for a much more effective way of working." He says that managers need to develop the habit of asking "what's the real challenge here for you?" This pushes the team member to get beyond the surface answer, and also challenges them to personalize the problem and assume responsibility for the solution. As scientist Jonas Salk noted, "What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question." You must push your team members until they realize the real core of the problem they're trying to solve.
The Habit Of Reinforcing Learning
At the conclusion of a conversation, many managers simply reinforce next steps, and everyone rushes off to their next commitment. However, this bad habit often allows critical insights to fade. Don't let a key moment pass without asking "what was the most useful thing here for you?" Help team members reinforce what they've learned, what they'll do differently, and how it will impact their decisions and actions over the coming days. If you want to change a culture, you must change how decisions are made in key moments.
According to Bungay Stanier, we must avoid the trap of being so busy that we neglect real conversations or take short-cuts that lead to bad habits. It's a more difficult road to patiently pursue brilliance together, but in the long-run it builds a culture that is more innovative, diverse, and effective.