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Gary Cohen On Just Ask Leadership (Part 2)

Posted on Friday, Dec 31st 2010

By guest author Gary Cohen

[The first part of Gary’s post focused on improving vision, one of the five categories of Just Ask Leadership. This second and final installment is about ensuring accountability. To learn more about the rest of Gary’s approach – build unity and cooperation, create better decisions, and motivate to action – read his book, Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.]

Ensure Accountability #1:

Who’s to blame—the employee or the job description?

When an employee isn’t performing well, leaders often ask:

  • Why didn’t you reach your sales targets?
  • How come you didn’t finish that report on time?
  • What skills do you need to add or improve?


Frustration builds on the part of the employee and the leader. And two dueling narratives take shape—“He’s unreliable, unqualified, and a perpetual disappointment” (leader); “No matter what I do, how hard I try, I can’t seem to accomplish my work and satisfy my boss’s expectations. Why is it so hard to please her? Why do I even bother trying?” (employee). Both mount evidence to support their positions.

Sometimes, though, the job description is to blame.

It’s a mistake, for instance, for the head of sales to also be in charge of service. The skills required for these two positions are incompatible. I know from personal experience. In the early days at ACI, I made a sales call at Sears after attending a humbling service-quality meeting with our operations unit. I believe strongly in transparency and honesty—then and now. So how was I supposed to persuade Sears, in that moment, to choose our company over our competition? The answer: I couldn’t. Half my brain was focusing on how we needed to improve.

In my coaching business, I repeatedly find this problem, particularly in small companies where employees are asked to wear lots of hats. After hearing a diatribe of disappointment about an employee, I’ll ask to see the job description, hand it back to the leader I’m coaching, and ask, “Could you do this job effectively?” They read it with fresh eyes and often answer, “No.” In fact, they find it hard to imagine anyone who could. We then switch gears and start designing a job description that gives the employee a real chance to succeed.

Before you let a narrative of failure and disappointment take shape, ask, “Who’s to blame—the employee or the job description?”

Ensure Accountability #6:

Why do my coworkers ask me questions that they should (and often do) know the answers to?

A client of mine answered this question with another, “Why can’t you tickle yourself?” According to Scientific American, the cerebellum tracks and foresees your hand’s movement before you even move. This forward prediction neutralizes the response of other parts of the brain involved in being tickled.

This same type of neutralizing happens when a coworker has a question. They come into your office or catch you in the hall. All you have to do is restate their question and seventy-plus percent of the time they come to their own solution.

What seems to be happening in these interchanges is permission-giving. The coworker is looking for validation that they actually have the right to solve a particular issue.

How you respond is important. If you provide the answer, you enter into the cycle of building dependence—death by 1,000 cuts, in other words.

Refrain from giving permission to the answer once it’s provided as well. This practice is only marginally better than providing answers yourself, in terms of building up your coworkers’ sense of responsibility and confidence. If they are the decider, let them decide.

Your coworkers can’t tickle themselves. Tickle them with questions.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Gary Cohen On Just Ask Leadership
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