In 1973, I accepted the opportunity to become the financial controller at Church College of Hawaii (which soon became BYU-Hawaii). I was 23 years old, but according to friends, I looked 16!
At my first administrative meeting with officers of the university, a problem was being discussed. I listened attentively, and after several ideas were suggested, I offered my insights. I was surprised to be greeted by a roomful of blank stares and several moments of uncomfortable silence. I was stunned; had I said something outlandish or stupid?
When the meeting ended, I asked one of the other participants what I had done wrong. He said, “Oh you weren’t wrong; you just haven’t been here long enough to have earned the right to speak up!”
I interpreted his response as my being perceived as a kid, too young to be taken seriously…but I was mistaken. What I came to later understand was that my approach to offering a solution to the problem being discussed was flawed. I was prescriptive rather than facilitative in my approach.
I believe that this insight has profound implications for leaders who desire to solve problems and bring about meaningful improvements in their organizations. In a recent conversation with a young engineer who works for a large manufacturing company, he asked, “Why do I get such incredible resistance to my ideas for improvements in our manufacturing processes? I can prove that we will save millions of dollars if we implement some of these, but I routinely get strong pushback against them!”
As we considered this together, we came up with three basic reasons for their resistance:
- Current practices have become “sacred cows.” Even if better approaches are offered, “we’ve always done it this way–and we refuse to change.”
- We’re too busy to consider doing things differently or better. Don’t distract us!
- The “not invented here” syndrome, where the engineer is not considered part of the team–and therefore is not credible.
Being prescriptive tends to lead to these responses. By definition, prescribers tell others what to do, rather than asking them what they think they ought to do. Facilitative leadership, on the other hand, invites others to engage in discovering better ways to get things done.
Warren Berger, in his book, A More Beautiful Question, suggests three important facilitative questions:
- Why… do we do the things the way we do?
- What if…we did it differently? What improvements might make it easier, better, or more efficient?
- How… might we create these improvements?
By engaging with the hands-on stakeholders in a problem, process, or practice via these questions, we significantly increase the probability that sacred cows will become less sacred and people will pause to think about how to do things better. Solutions that emerge will be “created here,” since the hands-on folks will be an essential part of the solution-creating process.
This procedural shift from prescriber to facilitator can be challenging. It means that you have to let go of the idea that you are the smartest person in the room, even adopting the idea that you may be the dumbest!
Chris Toth, CEO of Varian Corporation, put it this way: “If you start to think about what our role is as leaders, it’s actually quite simple. Our role is not to be the ones who make the decision or be the smartest person in the room. In fact, it can be exceptionally dangerous if the decision-making always goes to the leader. Instead, you must create a culture of compassion and empowerment that is accepting of diverse perspectives. This unlocks people’s creativity, productivity, and happiness.”
When I think back to the blank stares and silence I experienced almost 50 years ago at BYU-Hawaii, I wonder…what if I had asked questions instead of offering my prescription? Might I have more readily earned the right to be considered part of the team? Might I have helped us collectively to arrive at a best solution?
As I counseled the young engineer, I invite you to consider how you endeavor to lead and inspire innovative changes and improvements in your areas of responsibility. Might you enjoy greater buy-in and engagement from your people with a shift from prescriber to facilitator?