The Annoyance Factor

February 27, 2008

Q: Have you written on the annoyance factor yet? In my eighteen years running business affairs at three different studios, we always talked badly about the “leader” who could only ask questions and never come to a decision. I agree with your premise about Ask, Don’t Tell, but not taken to the extreme. Do you? Do you really? No, I mean do you really? See what I mean?

A: I like that, annoyance factor. I have been accused of it more than once from my former direct report. She became annoyed when she believed I was leading her somewhere that I wanted her to go. As an “Ask, Don’t Tell” leader, if you receive a lemon face (all forehead lines bunching and lips puckering) or a particularly loud sigh, it could be because you are making employees fish for a specific answer you have in mind. If you do know exactly what you want, don’t play games. This is when you should tell, not ask.

One key to avoiding the annoyance factor is to ask yourself, “Am I the decision maker here?” when employees confront you with a problem. If you are the appropriate decision-maker, you need to pitch your questions so that your direct reports will provide you the information you need. If not, you need to ask non-leading questions that will assist your direct reports with making their own decisions. If you are unsure about who will make the ultimate decision, you will often ask the wrong questions and annoy (or confuse) your employees.

If you are the decision-maker, your first questions likely will revolve around establishing the problem. It is a mistake to try to solve problems before fully understanding their complexity. Then, after brainstorming potential solutions, rank the best options, determine who will be responsible for implementing the plan, assign a timeline and communication plan, and build in a feedback loop to ensure that all aspects were done correctly.

Sometimes employees will encourage you to make a decision when, in fact, they are simply shirking their responsibility. No matter how much they slump their shoulders and give hangdog looks, you must not make their decisions for them. If you do, be prepared to make more and more decisions for them in the future. Pretty soon, you might as well assume their job title.

How can you help your employees make decisions on their own? What sort of questions should you ask? How do you provide wisdom without telling your employees how to accomplish the objective? First, be clear. Here’s what you might say: “I really would like to help you with this issue, but I won’t provide you with an answer because this is your decision to make and I trust you to make the call.” Then ask your employee questions that you would ask yourself if you were in his/her position. You might start by asking the employee to define the problem in more specific detail. Have your employee jot down his/her own answers. Explain that you will not be doing anything with this information. The decision is still the employee’s to make.

If you are not the decision-maker, remember that you are the teacher, not the learner. If you position yourself as the learner, you will subtly suggest to the employee that you intend to come to an independent decision about the problem at hand (even if you never reveal your decision to the employee). By positioning yourself as the teacher, you will impart a valuable message to your direct reports—trust. You trust them to fully establish the problem and make their own problem-solving decisions. And you have helped define boundaries—your role vs. their role. Your employees will leave your office inspired to make good decisions.

Sometimes leaders can use questions to shirk their own responsibilities. A venture capitalist shared with me a story recently about how the senior partners at [his or her?] company were providing assignments to junior associates without any explanation or resources. When the junior associates went to the seniors for help, they would engage in “annoyance factor” questioning. The junior associates would ask for direction and the senior partner would say, “How do you think it should be done?” Inwardly the junior associates were saying, “If I knew that, I wouldn’t have come to ask you!”

Sometimes leaders behave irresponsibly because they are intent on re-enacting what happened to them as junior associates. If I had to suffer, why should it be any different for my employees? Instead, a true leader would ask, “Why did this system work so poorly when I was a junior associate?” and “How can we improve the performance and morale of our junior employees?” Leaders seek to uproot dysfunctional systems, not perpetuate them.

To avoid the annoyance factor, determine who is the appropriate decision-maker for the problem at hand. If the decision is your employees’ to make, let them make it. Ask non-leading questions. Be sure your employees have a clear objective and access to enough information and resources to complete their work. And convey your trust in them to make good decisions.

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