Why leaders need to resist the urge to fix everything

By Dr. Chantal Thorn 4 minute Read

Is your advice-giving habit impeding your ability to focus on the real challenge? Giving feedback and advice are prescribed remedies to solve common organizational issues such as lack of engagement or stunted performance. But this rush to action and advice-giving has a real downside. Research conducted by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg found that 85% of the C-suite executives surveyed felt that their organizations were bad at diagnosing problems.

There’s a reason leaders jump in. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, says “Giving advice—even if it’s the wrong advice—often feels far more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.” And leaders often feel obliged to offer up solutions. But to get to the root of the real problem, or to drive innovation, they should stay curious longer before offering feedback or advice, and they can do this by asking good questions. 

That doesn’t mean advice and feedback are bad. Leaders just need to know which strategy to use and when.

Feedback can be effective, once you know what the real challenge is.

Advice is useful, as long as your intent isn’t to control the situation.

Coaching, or better yet, coach-like curiosity (slowing down a rush to action and advice-giving) can be woven into any conversation. It’s an awesome starting place, since staying curious longer and asking questions leads to clarity. And clarity makes ALL the difference in having an impact.

Here’s how you can better discern and deploy these strategies:

Being Coach-Like 

This is also known as asking better questions and actually listening!

A colleague or direct report comes to you with a challenging situation. What if—unless something’s on fire—you developed a habit of responding in those moments with curiosity, so they can unearth their own solutions? 

Using this approach in the face of a colleague’s challenge says: 

  • I respect you. I will hold space and time until you are clear on the situation at hand. 
  • I trust you. I will hold back my own feedback and advice while you—the expert of your obstacle—get to the root of the real challenge and potential solutions.
  • This isn’t about me. I don’t need to be the expert or to save the day with my great advice. 
  • Because I respect and trust you and this isn’t about meI expect something from you. I’ll curb my advice so that you do a good chunk of the work in sorting out whatever situation has come to the forefront. 

That all sounds great. But what if you still have things you want to say?

Giving Feedback 

What if you have good feedback after someone initially shares a challenge with you. Should you offer it right away?

Hold tight. Share your feedback after practicing your curiosity first and for as long as you can. You’ll be better equipped to provide relevant feedback once you have as much “data” on your plate as possible from the person whose challenge it is. 

When it comes time to give someone feedback, it should also be executed with curiosity. Before giving the feedback, think it over and stay curious about yourself. Try using these questions:

  • What assumptions am I making? 
  • What biases do I hold? 

Then, stay curious about the other person. Consider what you may know about them and what they value. 

Here’s a basic structure to follow:

  • Share facts and observed behaviour. (e.g., “I’ve noticed that in our last three leadership meetings, you spoke over Chris when they were providing their update.”)
  • Describe the impact on others and the person in question against their currency or what they value. (e.g., “It makes me wonder about the respect that you have for Chris, and if maybe others aren’t speaking up as often as they’d like because they’re worried you’ll talk over them, too.”)
  • Ask questions and stay curious. (e.g., “I know we’ve talked many times about how important your leadership impact is here and that’s why I wanted to talk to you about this. How can I help?”)

Think of feedback as an opportunity to raise someone else’s awareness about things you’ve observed, while remaining curious, questioning your intent and allowing space for the other person to speak.

Okay but . . . what if you have great advice to share? 

Giving Advice

As you’ve probably come to expect by now, staying curious is still relevant—even when giving advice. 

Dr. Chantal Thorn [Photo: courtesy of Box of Crayons]

There’s a difference between wanting to share your advice to be right or control the situation and genuinely wanting to share in order to support them because you care. Before you share, take a breath and ask yourself: What’s my intention in bringing this forward? 

The hidden (or maybe not so hidden) message you may have picked up on, is that staying curious longer permeates all that we do and greatly affects communication and understanding between teams and colleagues. Feedback, advice and even coaching (embodied as a way of being, rather than a “to do list” for later) all have their time and place but starting by asking questions can be an organizational lifesaver. Then you can truly get clear on the real challenge at hand and the best possible way to address the person bringing it to you (maybe the answer is advice! Only the moment will tell).

Dr. Chantal Thorn is the director of program development for Box of Crayons, a leadership & development company that helps organizations transform from advice-driven to curiosity-led. Her 20-plus-year career spans various industries, including ed tech, healthcare, and academia.

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