THE BLOG

Start Asking

09/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why is asking so important? In the Information Age, leaders must manage knowledge workers. Peter Drucker has defined knowledge workers as people who know more about what they are doing than their boss does. It is hard to tell people what to do and how to do it when they already know more than we do. In today's rapidly changing world, we need to ask, listen and learn from everyone around us.

Research shows that asking works. Howard Morgan and I recently published a study involving more than 11,000 leaders and 86,000 of their co-workers from eight major corporations. Our findings were clear: Leaders who ask, listen, learn and consistently follow up are seen as becoming more effective. Leaders who don't ask don't get much better. A few years ago, Alyssa Freas joined us in a similar study with customers and discovered nearly identical results. External customer satisfaction goes up when customer service representatives ask, listen, learn and follow up.

In addition to being supported by research, asking is just common sense. When people ask us for our input, listen to us, try to learn from us and follow up to see if they are getting better, our relationship with them improves.

This seems simple and obvious -- so why don't we do it?

Reviews of summary 360-degree feedback involving thousands of leaders from more than 50 organizations have shown that when the item "Asks people what he or she can do to improve" is included in the company's leadership inventory, it almost always falls near the bottom (if not in last place) in terms of employee satisfaction. As a rule, leaders don't ask.

I recently asked the vice president of customer satisfaction in a major organization if his employees should be asking their key customers for feedback -- listening, learning and following up to ensure service keeps getting better. "Of course," he replied.

"How important it this to your company?" I asked. "It's damn important!" he exclaimed.

I then lowered my voice and asked, "Have you ever asked your wife for feedback on how you can become a better husband?" He stopped, thought for a second, and sighed, "No."

"Who is more important -- your company's customers or your wife?" I asked. "My wife, of course," he replied.

"If you believe in asking so much, why don't you do it at home?" I inquired. He ruefully admitted, "Because I am afraid of the answer."

Why don't most of us ask, even though we know we should? We don't ask, because we are afraid of the answers.

Let me give you a personal example. I am 55 years old, and at my age, one type of input that I should be asking for every year is a physical exam. I managed to avoid this exam, for not one or two years, but seven years. How did I successfully avoid a physical exam for seven years? What did I keep telling myself? I will do it when I quit traveling so much. I'll go after I begin my "healthy foods" diet. I will get that exam after I get in shape.

Have you ever told yourself the same thing? Who are we kidding? The doctor? Our families? No, we are only kidding ourselves.

My suggestions are very simple:

• As a leader:

Get in the habit of asking key co-workers for their ideas on what needs to be done. Thank them for their input, listen to them, learn as much as you can, incorporate the ideas that make the most sense and follow up to ensure that real, positive change is occurring.

As a coach:

Encourage the people you are coaching to ask questions, listen to the answers and learn from everyone around them. Be a great role model for learning, then ask the people you are coaching to learn in the same way that you are. As an executive coach, I find that my clients can learn a lot more from their key stakeholders than they ever learn from me.

• As a friend and family member:

Ask your loved ones how you can be a better partner, friend, parent or child. Listen to their ideas. Don't get so busy with work that you forget that they are the most important people in your life.

Improving interpersonal relationships doesn't have to take a lot of our time. It does require having the courage to ask for important people's opinions and the discipline to follow up and do something about what we learn.