Providing Answers Is like Eating Sugar

April 30, 2014

Providing Answers

“We are addicted to our thoughts. We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.”

Santosh Kalwar, Quote Me Everyday

You make a vow not to eat sugar. A few minutes pass. Still, no. And then an hour. That is a definitive no! That is an absolute I will not touch the stuff. NO! And yet you crave it, and it calls to you like a mama to her cubs. You begin to salivate just at the mention of a sweet chocolate milk shake or a hot apple crumble. You feel your willpower start to slip. You quickly move from a definitive no, to a consideration, to an absolute YES!  How does this happen? Why can’t you help yourself?

This event is biological; it involves your tongue’s taste buds and the reward system in your brain (including the neurotransmitter dopamine). Sugar is physically addicting. To fight against sugar is to fight against your body’s natural impulses. And, sadly, the more sugar you have, the more you want it.

Just as we are wired to want sugar, we are wired to provide answers. Most leaders know that it’s better to lead by asking questions than by providing answers or giving commands. They know that questions motivate others and create a more dynamic, creative, and adaptive culture. And yet, in the moment, it’s awfully tempting to just give a quick little answer.

Our brains are these giant predictive algorithms that constantly want to predict, interpret, and know what is happening in our environment. Much of this predictive need likely developed from ancient times when it was the adaptive difference between humans and other species that kept us alive. Our predictions helped us to avoid dangers and seize opportunities. We took calculated gambles, based upon our experiences and beliefs, and we learned from them.

We trusted ourselves far more than we trusted others then, and we still do. That’s why it’s so hard to resist giving answers. Plus, we tend to minimize the harm. What’s the harm, really, in answering just one quick question?

The harm is that we create the expectation in ourselves and others that we will dole out more and more answers. We will spoon them out like sugar.

In the short-term, providing answers can be sweet–both for the leader and his coworkers. The leader gets to feel like an oracle, and the coworker gets a short-cut or perhaps her work done for her. In the long run, though, it creates a culture of dependence that is both unsustainable (especially as the organization grows) and unhealthy.

If you want your coworkers to trust you, you have to be willing to trust them. You have to fight the strong impulse to provide answers and give commands. You can’t stop yourself from making predictions (nor would you want to), but you can resist the urge to share what you know (or think you know). You can stop yourself from stunting the development of others.

Act as a resource, not an oracle, and start rewarding yourself in the short-term for asking, not answering. Or trust in the long-term rewards of accountable coworkers and a culture of independent thinkers.

Reach your next peak

We help leaders expand the change they want to see in their teams, organizations, and the wider world.