A Case for Active Inquiry in the Workplace

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By Brenda Stanton
December 03, 2019
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Your organization no doubt wants the talent that walks your halls to continually strive to be their best – to be committed to helping the organization be its best.

Yet, you may feel a disconnect and divide between your employees and the organization – where you know the communication is limited and not truly authentic. You sense employees are holding back from sharing what they truly think and feel.

You may have administered employee engagement surveys and received useful insight, but when it comes to understanding what truly drives your employees to do their best work and be their best, you may feel you’re coming up short. Authentic, open employee input is the sometimes-elusive goal.

Clark Kent or Superman?

In his book, The Alter Ego Effect, author and performance coach Todd Herman poses an interesting question: “Who do you believe is the alter ego (aka, alternative personality) – Clark Kent or Superman?” Inevitably about 90% of the participants answer that Superman is the alter-ego that Clark Kent created. Therefore, the majority believe that Clark Kent is the “real person” and Superman is the alternative personality he uses to express his super powers.

But what if this assumption is wrong? What if Clark Kent is the alter-ego that Superman (aka the real person) created in order to fit-into society, blend-in, and stay under the radar? What if your employees are doing this at work – wearing disguises to fit-in rather than stand-out and reveal their super powers?

Why would employees hide their super powers?

Wouldn’t they want to show their greatness, their full potential? Especially at work and to their bosses?

At a conscious level, employees yearn to display superpowers and unique traits so they can rise to the top, make more money, and realize their true career potential. At a subconscious level, employees fear that their basic survival needs to pay the bills, keep a roof over their head, and connect with others could be threatened if they do step into their full power at work – to truly be seen and heard.

Why would this be?

Employees are individuals who have past experiences – some positive and many negative. We must remember that work mirrors upbringings where authority figures such as teachers, parents, and coaches were in positions of power and knew best. Employees are accustomed to people in positions of power (e.g., leadership, management, HR) having agendas for them. Employees may feel that the relationship between them and the employer is a one-way street where the employer and higher-ups get what they want from their work – and the employee ends up with the short end of the stick.

To survive, individuals learn to conform and comply to gain approval and feel safe. Even if complying and conforming requires pretending to be someone they are not – perhaps even pretending to be “less than” their authentic selves.

How can an organization help employees feel safe enough to share their ideas and feedback openly without the fear of negative consequences? Concurrently, how can this organizational commitment begin to actualize and realize the full potential of the company?

Leadership Inquiry = Authentic Intelligence

As with any sustained change, the first step is to start with leadership. The leadership team demonstrates not only the mission and vision of the organization, but also emulates the values and behaviors that shape the culture. As with any behavior and cultural change, the goal is to create learnings that marry knowledge-based content with active inquiry exercises.

Knowledge based content that can foster cultural trust and openness includes emotional intelligence, self-awareness, empathy, values-based leadership, psychological safety – and, yes, vulnerability. A few examples of programs that cover these topics include: Servant Leadership, Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, and NeuroLeadership.

Experience is the best approach to teach active inquiry. For an executive to be an effective and credible coach, they should experience coaching themselves. Nothing is more effective at teaching a leader how to use active inquiry than a coach asking thought provoking questions and actively listening for the underlying solutions and answers. As a result, the leader can and will find answers to problems and situations that may have had them stuck for months or even years. In this Forbes article, the power of coaching for leaders is captured well.

Equal Conversations = Transformational Business Results

Teaching leaders the power of coaching allows them to learn how to trust themselves and be more present. In turn, employees who work for and with these leaders will inevitably experience a shift themselves when the leaders emulate the concepts. By using active inquiry with team members, leaders not only create a safe space for employees to share feedback and ideas – they also create a culture where employees feel a tremendous sense of value and worth in sharing their voices.

Leaders who remove their ego from the equation and listen intently to employees at all levels of the organization will experience a culture shift and gain incredible knowledge that could revolutionize the business.

Consider the TV show Undercover Boss, where leaders wear disguises so they can connect with employees and hear honest opinions. Incredible knowledge is gained because the executive is now on a level playing field with the employee. The employee “trusts” this individual because they are considered a peer – an equal. When the disguised executives ask open-ended questions and listen intently, they receive the unfiltered truth about the business and how employees really feel.

When coached by a self-aware, empathetic leader, an individual will begin to feel their ideas, feedback, and contribution to the organization are valued; as opposed to a more autocratic approach where an “all knowing” leader passes down wisdom and knowledge, reinforcing a “less than” mentality and culture.

Building Trust – Treat Employees as Puzzle Pieces, Not Pawns

Imagine creating an environment where employees literally feel that without their daily presence, the organization would be missing a valued piece of the organizational puzzle? If an employee feels seen, heard, and valued for the unique, irreplaceable contribution they make, they will remain loyal, engaged, and inspired. It’s human nature to stay in an environment that allows you to actualize your full potential while making a meaningful contribution.

Ashoka, a non-profit based in Virginia, believes in giving everyone a voice. Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, stated, “…we’re in the middle of a necessary but painful transition. Machines can pretty much do anything repetitive now – which calls for a new sort of person” which he calls a “changemaker.” “Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action, and continually adapt as situations change.”

Another organization putting employees’ voices in the forefront is, HCL, a global technology company. They have implemented “Ideapreneurship” which is based on the fundamental belief of inverting the organizational pyramid and engaging, enabling, and empowering the front line. “I” innovation is not just another word, it’s part of the organizational heritage and DNA. “Ideapreneurs” don’t run after success, their quest for answers leads them there.

Commitment to Cultural Change

In any relationship, trust is built up day-by-day. The employer/employee relationship is no different. The concepts discussed here are game changers because they create change at the root level; altering behavior and habits through being (overall presence) not just doing. Organizations that demonstrate commitment through consistent action and involving employees at all levels will experience a shift. More openness. More ideas. More candid, truthful feedback. More innovation.

Keep in mind this journey is a two-way street – in order for employees to trust, be open, and be vulnerable – the organization and leadership must go first!

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