The right questions will often lead to the best solutions

“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.” (Robert Half)

One thing I have learned is that I do not have all the answers, and the moment I start to think that I do, I am headed for trouble. When I am approaching a problem, whether it is one that I need to solve myself, or a situation where I am correcting someone, I find that asking questions will most often lead to the best results.

In this section of principles, we are developing our leadership skills and looking to help people change without arousing resentment. This principle is about using the power of the well placed question to help other people find their own solutions, and see for themselves why what they had been doing wasn’t the best course of action.

I was watching a movie the other night (Men in Black 3), and one of the characters said that you should never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to. That is sound advice. I have given similar advice to leader / managers when I was teaching a course to them. With this principle it is important to remember that when asking questions, you have to be ready for the answers.

Now, you can ask leading questions, as though you were some latter day Clarence Darrow at work in a courtroom. You can lead people by the nose with closed ended questions that get them to just what you had in mind. That can work, and it is certainly gentler than ramming your idea into their heads. But, is it really the best way to go about it? I don’t think so.

When I am addressing an issue with someone I lead, I ask a lot of questions, but I try to make them as open ended as possible. They will sometimes sound like these starters:

  • I see you did X here. Tell me why you chose that.
  • When you said Y, what exactly did you mean?
  • When you made the decision go down the Z path, what factors did you consider?
  • If you had that decision to make again, what might you do differently?

With all of these questions, I have to be willing to accept the answers that are given. And, if I am being really smart, I need to remind myself to be open to the possibility that I may hear something that is unexpected. I might just hear a rationale that I hadn’t considered, or a factor that I didn’t take into account.

Even though I may be approaching the situation with the idea of taking corrective actions, I may learn that the person made the best choice they could with the data and circumstances available. If that is the case, then it will take some work for the two of us to come to a meeting of the minds.

As I said above, I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I might know a good way to go about doing something, and it might be better than the way someone else is doing it, but that doesn’t mean I think that my way is the best way.

I once had an Emergency Room Doctor take one of my classes. She very correctly pointed out that in a crisis, there isn’t time to ask questions. For her, sometimes being direct was the most prudent way to proceed. As with some of the other principles here, the advice does not work in every circumstance. She did agree, though, that after a crisis was over, using questions was a great way to debrief and learn how to do better next time.

When you are working to change someone, and you are looking to do so without arousing resentment, why not try…

Principle 25 – Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

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When correcting mistakes, start by disclosing your own

“Nothing is more intolerable than to have to admit to yourself your own errors.” (Ludwig van Beethoven)

If Beethoven’s quote is true, then it must be even harder for us to admit our errors to others. I can tell you from my own experience, that both thoughts are most definitely true for me. I do not like admitting my errors to myself, and I like it even less when I have to admit them to those around me. The reality is that I make errors all the time. Thankfully, most of the mistakes I make are small and easily corrected, but I have made my share of whoppers too.

When faced with this principle I, like many others, want to dodge it a little. When I was first studying the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, I wondered why I would be increasing my leadership by going around talking about the mistakes I have made.

What I came to understand is that it doesn’t make me less of a person to make mistakes and admit them. Rather, it is an empowering act. When I courageously admit my errors to myself and others, it empowers me by lessening the inherent burden of trying to hide them. It also reminds those that I lead of my humanity, and that I have probably made all the mistakes they are making at some point in my career.

Just a week or two ago, two guys came to me with questions about how to get something done in one of our Project Management tools. It was a report they were trying to run, and they weren’t getting the results they expected. They sat with me for a few minutes, and explained what they’d tried. After they explained, I told them that I knew exactly what they were talking about because I had encountered the exact same problem once. I told them that I had made a mistake in the way I set up my report, and explained the mistake. Their eyes lit up with the look of recognition, and they went on their way to fix the problem. Later that week one of them dropped me a note of thanks. They still didn’t have exactly what they needed, but they had made significant progress.

The fact is that we all make mistakes, and we tend to make the same mistakes that someone else has already made. When we are looking to correct something with someone else, it is good for us to remember this and to remember…

Principle 24 – Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.

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When the need arises to criticize, be gentle

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” (Frank A. Clark)

I love a good analogy to get my mind turning on a subject. The quote above gives some great advice when it comes to delivering criticism, and the analogy really does help make it real.

Have you ever planted a garden, or maybe re-seeded some grass? If you have, then you know that to get the seeds to germinate and grow, you have to water them every day. If the air is dry, you might even had to water them several times each day. Last year I had a patch of grass that needed to be re-seeded, and I was out there with my hose 2 or 3 times a day.

When I went out to water, how do you think I had my hose nozzle set? Did I turn on the jets, with the full stream of water and deluge the patch? Of course not! When the seeds were first laid, I would have washed them away, and when the grass was sprouting and fragile, the stream would have snapped off the blades before they even got a start.

Instead, I set my nozzle to a gentle setting, and I arced the water into the area. I did my best to make the watering I was doing represent a gentle, healthy, thorough rain shower.

So it should be when the need does arise to criticize others. If you’ve been following along with these principles, and have been diligently applying them, then the concept of giving criticism at all will seem foreign to you, as well it should. But, a study of this chapter in How to Win Friends and Influence People, will help guide you on your way.

The idea of this principle is to call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. This principle takes a lot of finesse to execute well, and I suggest that you give it a lot of thought. If done in a ham fisted way, or without careful planning, it may become easy to step over the line from indirect criticism into the world of passive-aggressive statements, and that is a place you won’t want to be.

Calling attention to mistakes indirectly is often a matter of leadership by example. One way that I have done this is by gently correcting something in a way that will not cause the person any embarrassment, but lets them know that the mistake was caught.

A while back I was in charge of a meeting that was international in nature. We had people dialed in from 4 continents to participate. Part of this meeting involved going over a list of action items, and one of the key elements was to make sure that the target date for completion was always in the future. It was easy to have them slip, if the person maintaining their entry on the list wasn’t diligent. Occasionally, the person who had a date slip was me. When this would happen, I would allow the stale date to be shown, and would make a point out of correcting myself in the meeting, along with a reminder of the importance of keeping those dates in the future. By doing this, and one else who had a stale date would automatically note it, and fix them quickly.

When we are less direct with our criticism, we are like the gentle spray of my hose, keeping the grass seedlings growing without snapping them off at the root. When the need arises to criticize, let us remember…

Principle 23. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.

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Start with praise when the need arises to correct an issue

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.” (John Wooden)

With this post we begin to look at the final section of Dale Carnegie’s 30 Human Relations Principles, as written in How to Win Friends and Influence People. These last 9 principles fall under the sub heading of Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment.

The truth is that if we are engaged in the business of leading others, at some point we are going to have to correct mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes will be small, and easy to address. Other times they will be quite large and harder to correct. These last 9 principles will help guide us through as we will help people change in such a way that they will not resent us or be offended.

John Wooden was the basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins. Under his guidance, some of the greatest records in his sport we amassed. More importantly, the boys who entered UCLA to play for Coach Wooden grew into men who became contributors to all walks of life, not just basketball players. Long after the end of his days coaching on the hard wood, his wisdom was sought to help shape the minds of men and women looking to become leaders in their own right.

With the quote above, Wooden lets us know that we are all going to make mistakes, as long as we are trying to do something. It is only when we are idle that we will be mistake free – if you are willing to ignore the mistake of wasting away your time being idle.

When it comes to correcting mistakes or addressing concerns with someone, this set of principles starts with what might be the most difficult. Recall that when we were learning to Be a Friendlier Person, we were reminded not to criticize, condemn or complain; when we were trying to Win People to Our Way of Thinking, we were first reminded not to argue. Both of those were principles that took us away from where our instincts might lie. For this set, we are again taken away from where momentum might carry us.

In this set of principles we are first reminded to Begin with praise and honest appreciation. “But wait,” you may say, “I am looking to correct something. Why would I start with praise?” There are several reasons why you want to start here.

First, starting with praise and appreciation opens the person up to you, it allows them to relax a bit because they know that you appreciate their work.

Second, once relaxed, it keeps their spirit engaged, and they will be more likely to want to address the concern.

Third, the fact is that most of the people you work with and lead, have much more that is praiseworthy than what needs to be addressed. Acknowledging this up front helps you remember to value this member of the team.

A few words of caution. As always, you must make sure that the praise and appreciation you are giving is sincere and heartfelt. If you don’t really mean it, don’t say it. Your words will ring hollow to the recipient. Also, if the only time you praise a person is when you are about to correct them, then you will be conditioning them to hate praise. Make sure that praise and appreciation is a constant part of your dealings with them.

One other thing I have found to be of value, the praise you are giving should be related to their job. Also, it should be related, at least in some way, to the part of the job you are addressing. Mr. Carnegie cites an example where President Coolidge praised a secretary for the dress she was wearing, then asked her to be more careful with her punctuation. While this fits the formula, it again rings hollow for me.

We know that as we lead productive teams there are going to be times when we need to address problems, and mistakes. When those times come, let’s remember to…

Principle 22 – Begin with praise and honest appreciation.

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Everyone wants to be challenged

“The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excel.” (Charles Schwab)

If you do a Google search on “what makes people happy at work?”, you will get 738 Million results. I didn’t take the time to read them all, but I did browse a few, and I have done some reading on this in the past. One item that seems to come up on many of the surveys and studies that rank among the top factors, is doing meaningful, and challenging work. The wording may vary, but that theme comes up again and again.

Speaking from my own experience I can tell you that I have been most engaged at work, and happiest at work, when I have been involved in projects and assignments that challenged me, and that I perceived as meaningful. Now, what is meaningful can vary from person to person, but what is the same among them is that the person doing the assignment believes that what they are doing makes a difference to someone, or to the organization.

Charles Schwab’s quote fits into this idea of job satisfaction nicely. What he is saying is that when people feel challenged, when they have a sense of competition at work, they will excel.

Think about it from your own perspective. Would you rather have a job where you had little to do, and spent most of your time in tedious tasks, or completely idle; or would you like to have a job that challenged you – either mentally or physically – to do the best you can? You might be tempted to say that you’d like the job with lots of idle time, and that might even be nice for a short time, but over time you’d become bored and lethargic.

As a leader, it is part of my job to inspire people to excel. I have found that when they have work that stretches them, and makes them want to do better each day, they are happier, and the results flow in. Sometimes there are more tedious assignments that have to get done. The challenge there is for me and them to see how that assignment fits into the larger picture of our department or our company. In so doing, we create that link in our minds that lets us know that what we are doing matters.

In this section of principles, we are trying to Win People to Our Way of Thinking. This is the last of the principles in this section, and it is the one that we can use to close the deal. Once we have reached this point, and we are about to forge agreement, we can issue a challenge to our colleague. That challenge will be that together we will execute on the agreement we’ve reached.

Some people who look at this principle might shy away. They might say that there is too much competition in the world, and we shouldn’t be so driven to compete with one another. They have a valid point, and even Schwab helps guide us in the quote. The competition we are talking about here isn’t the kind fought on the playing fields of sport, and it isn’t about clawing our way to the top while trampling others. It is about the healthy sense of competition with ourselves. It is about the challenge.

When you are ready to execute on a plan with the person that you’ve worked hard to reach agreement with why not…

Principle 21 Throw down a challenge.

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Don’t just tell me, show me

“A Picture paints a thousand words.” (Fredrick R. Barnard)

Many of you, like me, probably have a DVR or Digital Video Recorder. My wife and I rarely watch TV live, opting usually to record our favorite shows so we can watch them commercial free. When we do watch, we fast forward through the commercials. I have noticed that as DVRs increase in popularity, commercials on TV are changing. They still have a golden toned voice over, but knowing that people will be hitting the fast forward button, they have also gone to bigger and bolder pictures. Many companies actually put the words that the voice over artist is saying on the screen in large print so they can be read even at high speed.

It has been known in the world of advertising, and in the world of business, that pictures tell a story better than mere words can do. Tell me that 75% of sales come from one place, and I might remember, but if you show me a pie chart, it will be cemented.

When we are driving to align our minds and actions with others, it is usually best to find a way to make the concept come alive for the other person.

Some years ago I was part of a project that analyzed why projects failed at our company. We did a deep dive analysis on over 50 projects that had failed to meet their objectives. We looked at many factors that played a role, and we did so with objective analysis and interviews. One theme that came from our study was that often our own senior management would either delay decisions about key aspects of a project, or would force changes into the projects after they were underway. These, and other actions, tended to make projects either come in late, or over budget.

The study took a couple of months, and I was elected to share the results with the senior managers of our company. The team and I knew that if we really wanted to have meaningful change in the future, we had to have our senior management understand the role that they were playing in the success and failure of projects.

The day before the presentation, I decided to take a bold step. I went to a craft store and bought 10 small mirrors. I put them into nice envelopes and placed them at the seats of the executives before the presentation. I even tied the envelopes shut with ribbon. When it came time to get to that point in the presentation, I asked them all to open the envelope in front of them. When they did, they held the mirror and saw their own reflections. I then proceeded to make the point, with definite examples, of how they had contributed to the failure of projects.

It was risky on my part, because they might have thought that I was trying to show them up. I was careful to point out that all of their decisions were made with the best of intentions, and that they were, of course, correct decisions. At the same time, I helped them to see that even though they were making good and right decisions for the company, they were also putting a strain on the people who worked for them. In fact, they were putting a double strain because they were not only causing projects to fail, but then they were holding the project leads accountable for the very failures that the executives themselves had caused.

At the end of the meeting several of the executives came and personally thanked me. I would love to say that the presentation caused them all to change their behaviors overnight, but that would be an over sell. What is true is that over time they did become more aware of how they were making projects fail, and we found ways to account for that within our results so that the project leads weren’t hit again.

When we need to get people to our way of thinking it is best to remember this principle.

Principle 20 – Dramatize your ideas.

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Appealing to the nobler motives

“The moment there is suspicion about a person’s motives, everything he does becomes tainted.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

There are really not that many villains in the world. There are few people who sit wringing their hands and uttering a maniacal laugh as they plot evil schemes to conquer their fellow humans. Really, most people want to do the right thing.

Most people not only want to do the right thing, they want others to know that they are doing the right things for the right reasons. Heck, even the maniacal hang wringers want others to think that they have high-minded, noble motives.

Gandhi’s quote serves as a reminder of all this. Gandhi reminds us that what people think about how we are doing what we do matters. It matters because it is about our reputation. Once tainted, a reputation is hard to repair, so people will go to great lengths to protect theirs.

If we are working to Win People to Our Way of Thinking, it is good to remember this simple truth. As we are working our way to agreement, we know that if we appeal to a person’s sense of fair play, of doing what is right, of acting for the general good, of supporting the company’s goals, and so on, most people will want to follow along.

Most people will even set aside their own interests for the common good, and for the higher minded motives.

Now, a word of caution for you, and it is one we’ve touched on before. If you used the notion of appealing to noble motives as a way to manipulate others, then you will soon be found out. And, guess what, your reputation will be damaged, and your motives forever questioned.

So, as we are working our way towards a meeting of the minds, we can apply …

Principle 19 – Appeal to the nobler motives.

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Treat the other person as though you know their heart is breaking

“Three-fourths of the people you will ever meet are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them, and they will love you.” (Dale Carnegie)

Sympathy. That word comes to us from the Greek roots syn (together), and pathos (feeling) – or just “fellow feeling”. Often we hear it used interchangeably with empathy, but the two are slightly different. If you look up the definitions of the two words you find that empathy is the state where you actually feel the same as the other person, while sympathy is the state where you understand the feelings of the other person and have a genuine interest in those feelings.

The quote above from Mr. Carnegie reminds me of something else that I was once told. A former mentor of mine told me to treat the other person as though their heart is breaking, because most often you will be right. In a conflict, or even a difference of opinions, understanding that the other person has feelings about the subject, and then understanding what those feelings are, goes a long way to helping win that person to our way of thinking.

As I am writing these entries about the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, I am constantly reminded that in order for me to accomplish the title of the book, I must be genuinely interested in the other person. It isn’t about my feelings, my desires or my wishes only, it is about those of the other person.

In the late 1960s in America there was a television show called Dragnet. Each week the stories on the show were about the crime fighting that was done by the main characters –Sgt. Joe Friday, and Officer Bill Gannon. It became a bit of pop culture to mimic Joe Friday and say “Just the facts ma’am”, as he would when discussing something with a suspect or witness. I am sure that he said it far less often on the show than most would believe, but the idea was there. In his world of solving crimes, he was only interested in dispassionately gathering the facts. Those facts would, and most often did, lead him to the culprits and help him secure an arrest.

That is a fine approach if you are Sgt. Joe Friday, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or any other detective. Most of us, though, are not detectives. We live in a world where facts and emotions often are intertwined.

One of the best compliments that a person can receive where I work is that they take a fact based approach to problem solving. This compliment is a recognition of the fact that most problems which need to be solved have both a fact-based, and an emotion-based side. When a person takes a fact-based approach, they are doing what they can to weed out the emotion and deal only in the black and white. Most of the time this will yield the best answer in terms of the technology involved, or the objectives of the project, but it can ignore the human element with detrimental results.

I have often seen in group meetings where a person has a particular fervor about a position in regards to a problem at hand. The fervor may, or may not be based on the facts in play. The feelings the person is having may just be related to their own passions on the subject, or some other situation which is going on. Sometimes it is about ownership of a piece of the puzzle. Too often I have seen teams steamroll through the facts, reach a conclusion that satisfies them, and implement a solution. Left in the dust are the feelings of the person (or even people), who were passionate.

Most people are quire professional, and they will set aside their feelings for the common good. But, setting aside those feelings, and actually having them addressed are two very different things. While the professional might willingly swallow their pride on an issue, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten that their feelings were trampled. At some time in the future, whether they do so intentionally or not, those feelings will pop up.

Failing to at least acknowledge the feelings of the other person might bring compliance to a solution, and it might even bring compliance to the best solution. But, it is like playing emotional whack-a-mole. That little head might go down under the hammer this time, but it is just going to pop up out of another hole later.

I am not suggesting here that conference tables be replaced with couches and bearded men with notebooks delving into the dark recesses of other peoples’ minds. What I am suggesting is that if we want to continue to be successful, and if we indeed want to Win Friends and Influence People, then we better learn how to recognize, address and acknowledge that the other person has feelings in the situation, and what those feelings are.

Note that in this principle, Mr. Carnegie doesn’t tell us to be empathetic to the other person. I do not have to share the same feelings about as subject as the person with whom I am working. But, if I want long term success and cooperation, I need to…

Principle 18. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.

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A change in perspective to move two parties closer together

“I’m you…” (Fictional Detective Lt. Everett Backstrom)

There is a detective show that has come on to US television this winter called Backstrom. It is about a quirky, eccentric detective in Portland, Oregon, who heads up a special crime unit. One of the things that the eponymous detective does is to get into the mind of the person he is investigating. He will start off with “I’m you…”, and then proceed to delve into the motivations of the person in front of him.

The idea for doing this isn’t new to TV dramas. Many other crime procedurals use the same tactic in one form or another, perhaps most famously by the profilers on Criminal Minds. Sadly, if some of the stories I have been reading are true, Backstrom will be cancelled at the end of this season.

But that doesn’t change the idea behind what that detective, and many other smart people do. If you want to understand why a person acts the way they do, it is good to work hard to see things from their perspective. Way back when we were talking about Principle 1 (Don’t criticize, condemn or complain), I said that the opposite of the three Cs was understanding. When I try to understand the motivations of the other person, I am far less likely to commit one of the 3 Cs. In this set of principles, we are trying to Win People to Our Way of Thinking, the concept is even more true. If my goal is to have you and I come to a meeting of the minds, where we are presently at odds, then it is in my best interest to understand why you think and feel the way you do.

I know that probably the world thinks that Mrs. Bobby-C and I live the idyllic life, full of nothing but happiness and rainbows. If only that were true. We have our differences from time to time, and sometimes those differences can be heated. One thing I have learned, from having blundered my way through all too often, is that when we are in a disagreement, it is best if I take time to truly understand what my wife is thinking and feeling. I need to know what is making her react the way she is, so that I can understand what I am doing, or what is in the environment, that can be addressed.

When people ask us about keys to a long, healthy marriage, my wife and I always come back to communication. And when I get into a more lengthy discussion, I encourage married couples to work hard to understand what the other person is thinking. I am not advocating that they become mind readers, rather that they take the time to see what is in front of them, and ask the right questions. I have learned, and you should as well to…

Principle 17 – Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.

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When my idea, and your idea are the same, then we have each won the other to our way of thinking

“It’s amazing what we can get done when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit” (A Former Director where I work)

About 13 years ago I was asked to join a new team at work. It was a team that was charged with setting standards for Project Management that would eventually become the basis for all of the project management discipline for the entire company. In the beginning there were only a few of us, less than 10 people. Our director had a vision for how he wanted us to develop the standards and implement them, and he knew it would take some years to get them all in place.

One morning we were in a meeting with him. We were discussing some of the tools that we were evaluating, and some of the processes we were looking to adopt. It wasn’t like no one was doing project management in the company. In fact, part of why we existed as a team was that the opposite problem existed. Everyone was doing PM work, but all in their own way.

Our director wanted us to find which of the processes that already existed were the best fit to the standards we’d been studying. He wanted us to implement that process and move things forward. One process in particular I thought was good, but needed some modifications. The director looked me square in the eye and asked what about implementing it without changes did I not understand? Well, nothing of course.

It wasn’t that day that he uttered the quote above, but it was that day that I realized how he meant it. By choosing a process that was already in place with one of our major departments, and implementing it, we would gain instant credibility and momentum. It didn’t matter that the process had flaws, what mattered was that we would have buy in from that department, and they would become our advocates for change.

As time went on, we did implement that process without changes. Over time, as it became a standard practice, we used a disciplined change process to address the flaws. Today it is a robust process that works very well.

Or skunk works team had worked hard on understanding industry best practices. We knew what would be the best way to do that process and others. But the 7 or 8 of us didn’t have enough voice to implement change. At best we would get compliance, but not cooperation. When we let the very programs we were leading believe that what they were doing was the right process, and we needed to communize it, our momentum grew. It didn’t matter whose idea it was, it mattered that we were all working together toward the common goal.

Very often we all have great ideas about how to accomplish things. And we know that if the other person, or group would just see it our way, we could make headway. Too often we try to be bull-headed and push our idea, when the better thing to do is to present the facts, and let people draw their own conclusions. When we do this, when the other person is involved in getting the idea moving, then they have ownership for the change. Once that happens with enough people, all we have to do is sit back and witness the magic.

I have had people ask me “But, what if I have the great idea, and someone else takes credit for my work?” To them I say that it is important to make sure your management knows what your ideas are, and how you implemented them by letting others come to the same conclusion. In the end, your organization will benefit from the idea, and those that matter will know the role you played in not only having the spark of the idea, but helping it to germinate in the organization.

This set of principles is about Winning People to Our Way of Thinking. When our way of thinking and their way of thinking are the same, we have hit pay dirt!

Principle 16 – Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

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