When is my curiosity a detriment to the organization?

February 27, 2008

Frame your questionsWhen you log onto the Internet, do you stay focused on your search exclusively, or do you occasionally follow strings of curiosity? We often go where our curiosity takes us, which is human nature and usually fun. Problems arise, however, when our curiosity takes someone else for a ride.

If you are conversing with a subordinate about their work, be sure to frame your questions. Explain why you are asking the question (you want to gather information to make a decision yourself or you want to learn about how this person is making a particular decision, for example), so that your subordinates do not make presumptions about what they should or should not be doing. If you fail to frame your questions, even if the setting is informal, your subordinates might assume that you want them to set a new course using your questions as a guide. They might, for instance, take a simple clarification question (“Why are you using the hand-carved ornaments?”) as an indication that they should have made a different decision (factory-made ornaments).

It is okay to be curious. In fact, it is probably a trait that helped transform you into a leader. But be sure to let your subordinates know when you are just being curious, so they can better assess how to proceed with their work.

John Urban of Pioneer Hi-Bread International wanders around the company at least one day each month. He might walk into someone’s cube, look at his or her nameplate, and ask, “So, Peter, any new surprises in accounting lately?” Whether there happened to be any new surprises or not, John always shared with the employee the reason for his question before leaving. He found if he did not communicate the “why,” the employee was likely to wonder about the reason for the CEO’s visit. Was there an accounting surprise that I should have found? I best go look closer at what I have done just to make sure.

The old adage “a small turn from the captain of the ship will turn major wheels down below” holds true. Know clearly what you want to accomplish with your questions and frame your questions so your subordinates know the “why.” If you are not clear, you might wind up with unintended consequences—like factory-made ornaments or a shift in accounting practices.

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