The Sharpening Stone – An Ancient Method for Developing Others

Okay.  So you’re in charge of something.  You’re experienced.  You’re also pretty smart.  Naturally, people come to you for direction.

They pop their heads in your office, ask you a question.  You give them an answer.  And off they go to execute.

… and you wonder why your people can’t seem to solve problems on their own.

You’ve just missed a great opportunity to develop someone. The ancient philosopher Socrates was known for teaching people to think critically and draw out their ideas by asking them questions.

When a subordinate comes to you for an answer, resist the urge to give an immediate response.  Instead, begin to formulate some questions that will challenge them to think through the issue on their own.  We learn more effectively when we figure things out than when someone else gives us a solution.  Let me illustrate:

My wife grew up in Southern California.  When we would visit her family, I would sometimes do the driving, with Marita in the passenger seat telling me “Turn right up here.  Take this exit.  Make a left there…”  After visiting multiple times, I still did not know my way around.  But if I have to figure out for myself how to get from point A to point B, I learn my way around a new place pretty quickly.

It’s the same way at work.  When all you do is give people your answers, they don’t learn to think for themselves.  But if you ask good questions that push people to think through problems or challenges on their own, you will be training them to develop good judgment that they can carry forward to the next challenge they encounter.  And, people are more likely to own solutions they came up with themselves.

So, let’s suppose that one of your people wants direction on how to plan a project.

Start by asking, “How were you thinking of approaching this project?”  You can do this while still maintaining adequate control of the situation.  If you don’t like what they’re telling you, or think they may be overlooking something important, just ask another question that will draw them to a better solution.

“What ideas do you have for getting your team behind the initiative?”

“How do you think the customer is likely to respond to the time frames you’ve set?”

“Can you think of a more efficient way to get through the initial phase?”

In the short run, this method will take you a little more time than simply giving directions.  But in the long run, it will develop your people’s thinking so that they can make good decisions on their own … which will ultimately save time and help you accomplish more through others.

About the Author: Rob Skacel, Ph.D.

Rob is a licensed psychologist with senior executive experience. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Franklin & Marshall College, and Master’s and Doctoral degrees from Purdue University. Rob began his career in the field of clinical psychology, splitting his time between patient care and management responsibilities. Within a few years, he began the transition to business psychology specialization. He has since held senior leadership positions in sizeable for-profit and non-profit organizations, where his responsibilities focused on performance improvement and organizational development.

Rob founded True Edge Performance Solutions in 2000, and maintained it as a part-time venture for a number of years as he continued to accrue executive experience. By 2006, True Edge had grown to the point where it required Rob’s full-time attention. Over the years, Rob has provided services to dozens of leaders and their organizations, in a variety of industry sectors such as manufacturing, professional services, health care, agribusiness, construction, education, non-profit, and trade associations.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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