The power of the question

I recently had the privilege of working with the executive Board of a global organisation and was asked to observe a Board meeting and Strategy session and then provide feedback on their performance against the characteristics of a high performance team.

The team was, as you would expect, very male dominated in terms of both gender and behaviour, and discussions were dominated by knowledge holders.  One of the few women in the team was very evidently the most strategically capable and yet her contributions to the strategic debate totalled less than 10% by volume and certainly less than 10% by influence.  Each time she raised an opportunity or discussion point one or other of her male colleagues would point out that, in their considered experience, they had tried this before and it hadn’t worked, or that her idea would never work, or worse of all, that she clearly did not understand the complexities of the business in the way that they did.  Gradually, and somewhat expectedly, her contributions diminished and the old guard maintained their control over the discussions.

We had a short coaching session part-way through the meetings and explored how she felt about the way in which she was being treated, how she was doing and how she could enhance her style to secure greater leverage within the debate.  I pointed out that a number of her colleagues were adopting the position of expert, either through knowledge or experience, and, as such, were difficult to deal with in the debate, prior to suggesting that she should consider using questions to steer the debate.  We discussed the fact that an insightful, well-phrased and well-timed question has tremendous power to significantly influence others’ thinking.

The impact on the group of her new approach was dramatic – her questions imposed a rigour and depth to the debate that was previously missing.  The group began to more fully debate their strategy, their context and circumstances, their competitive positioning and their value proposition.  Through her questions she was able to exert influence on the group and her male colleagues were able, in time, to look beyond the perspective of their expertise and adopt a more open-minded, questioning approach.

She was incredibly pleased with the process and the outcomes, as was the group.  All was going well until, after one particularly insightful question that acted as a catalyst for one of her colleagues and challenged him to change his thinking, he responded with a new position.  Her thought was “Fantastic, I have really influenced him,” but sadly his closing comment was, “I had never thought of that before – I have inspired myself.”

Perhaps real self-awareness and change takes a little longer than she expected.

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