Socrates Was On To Something

by Jennifer Miller on July 2, 2010

in Leadership, Learning

Both of my kids are really into the stretchy bracelet craze. On the way to the grocery store today, my nine year old son remarked that one of his bracelets looked liked Medusa.  Feigning ignorance, I said, “Medusa? Who’s that?”  He replied, “You know, Mom, the mythological character who had snakes on top of her head.”

Of course, I know who Medusa is, but I wanted to know if my kid knew. Later, I realized that this conversation represented a technique honed during my years as a corporate trainer. I think of it as the “low-key testing for understanding.”  This method isn’t a new concept, of course. Greek philosopher Socrates is credited with creating a method to help people form their own conclusions by asking questions.  As a more contemporary example, Dave Meier, founder of The Center for Accelerated Learning, says “never do for the learners what they can do for themselves”. His point is that people know a lot more than we give them credit for.  Given the right tools and encouragement, people can usually figure things out for themselves.

Leaders can use this approach too. The primary objective of leadership is to bring out the best in one’s contributors. When a contributor has a procedural question or is facing a dilemma the “test for knowledge” technique is an excellent way to demonstrate a collaborative leadership approach. Leaders don’t develop others by being the “sage on the stage”; they help their contributors figure it out for themselves.

Back in my supervisory days, whenever my direct reports had a question about how to do something, I’d draw on this “test for knowledge” approach.  Instead of immediately launching into an explanation, I’d start by “testing” for what they already know with a question like, “What have you already tried to solve this problem?” or “Tell me which parts you’re clear about and which parts need clarification.” Doing this accomplishes two things. It: a) Saves time by avoiding a rehash of something the contributor already knows and b) Models open-ended questioning, which the contributor can in turn use with their colleagues.

After discussing the answers to the low-key understanding test, I would then follow up to help the contributor think through their options and uncover answers.  Some of my favorites inquiries:

  • Do you know where to find the answer on the company intranet? Let’s go take a look and find it together.
  • What part of the process is unclear to you?
  • What are the pros and cons of this situation?
  • If you decide on taking this action, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
  • What’s your gut telling you?
  • How can I support you in this decision?

Some say a leader’s job is to remove the barriers to their contributors’ performance. While this is true, a leader must resist the temptation to jump in to “fix” problem so that people can quickly move on with their day. By taking a few extra minutes to fully explore a contributor’s knowledge base, a leader will actually save time in the long run.  Beyond time-saving benefits, employee engagement will get a boost too. Contributors who are involved in solving their own problems gain confidence, which leads to future positive contribution.

Whenever you’re tempted to take the short cut, remember this: it’s not what you know, it’s what they learn. Do Socrates proud and use the low-key test for understanding.

Photo credit: © Hans Laubel

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kevin W. Grossman July 2, 2010 at 8:20 am

Very nice. It’s also the counselor reflective approach. “What do you think you should do?”

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