Are you treating your staff like children? These is not the key to high performance!
Are you treating your staff like children?

I realize that being called a “Mom” as a derogatory term is well, awful. (They sure as heck don’t say, “stop being a Dad.”) I’ve written about this a few times, but it has come up again. Here’s the story:

Mindy manages a coffee shop. Her boss, my client Nan, and owner of the shop adores her. She was chosen very carefully from a number of candidates. But because Nan has had many managers over the years, she considers herself “unlucky.” So we bench-marked the job and assessed Mindy before she was hired. Mindy jumped the hoops to get this job and she absolutely loves it. It is her dream job, in fact. Until a couple of the servers started giving her a hard time.

Mindy is ready to quit. The “gals” are complaining about Mindy and Mindy is at the end of her rope. Nan considers Mindy a fabulous manager and it is all about to blow up when Nan asks me to schedule an hour with Mindy. Mindy, is grateful.

I get to hear the story of how these two particular servers are immature complainers who disregard the schedule, continually ask for advances, and are rude to her. I’ve already heard from Nan that they complain that Mindy is bossy and sharp with them.

I ask Mindy, “If you were one of these ‘gals,’ how would I describe you?”

“Well, they tell me to stop being their Mom.” she replies.

“Mom. What exactly does that mean?” I need clarification. “Mom can mean different things to different people?”

“They want me to stop telling them what to do.” Mindy complains. “But of course, I have to think of the customers and about Nan. They are being unreasonable. I simply explain to them that they shouldn’t take advantage of me and Nan or let the customers suffer. We are constantly arguing. ”

“I’ll bet that makes you mad.”

“It irritates the heck out of me.” She barks.

“What if you stopped explaining and telling them what to do?” I ask.

“What do you mean?” Mindy asks.

“Just stop.” I say

“And let them get away with their behavior?” I can see Mindy become confused.

“What if, instead of telling them, you ask them what to do? What if, rather than having the answers and the explanations, you have great questions instead? What if, rather than irritation, you choose curiosity.” I offer.

Mindy stops and gives me the stink eye. “Give me an example.”

“Mindy, what is the problem as you see it?” I ask.

“When they complain about the schedule, I have to redo all of my work.”

“Perfect. That is very clear,” I say. Pretend I am them and now, ask me a question.

“Why do you have to complain all the time about the schedule?” She snips.

“Great; except this time, less snarky. And let me give you a little secret: avoid asking ‘why.’ ‘Why’ is an invitation into their story and excuses. Try a question that starts with a ‘how’ or a ‘what.’ That way you are asking them to think.” I suggest.

“Hmmm,” Mindy ponders. “What can I do to stop you from complaining about the schedule?”

“Fabulous.” I reply. “What will they say?”

“They will say, ‘I don’t complain about the schedule. I just need some changes on occasion. And we will argue about that.”

“Then ask another question, Mindy.”

“This is hard, Ruth!” Mindy pleads.

“Here is the truth, as difficult as it is—no one likes a know-it-all. You don’t. I don’t. They don’t. But you can manage this if you change the way you are communicating with them. When you are clear about the problem and ask other people to solve it, you stop being ‘Mom,’ and you start being a leader that allows other people to be brilliant. Get it? But it takes a new habit. A habit of asking great questions and biting your tongue every time you feel an answer, explanation or instruction coming on. Unless they ask you for it. You see?”

“OK. How’s this: What changes would you like to make?” Mindy squints at me.

“What is your real problem here? If your problem is redoing the schedule and making changes, is this the question that solves that for you? Try again.”

“OK. ‘What can we do, before I make the schedule, to avoid reworking the schedule with your changes?’ ”

“That is a great question! Congratulations, Mindy.” I am excited now.

Mindy smiles. “That feels pretty great.”

“This is your new practice. Every day. Before long, they will stop complaining, they will stop calling you bossy and they will start solving their own problems. And you will stop arguing.”

“I’m on it. This will be hard, but I’m doing it. I’m also going to try it at home with my kids.”

“That is a great reminder for me, too!” We laugh.

Caught in an argument? Ask a great question.

Feeling like a jerk? Ask a great question.

Are you a know-it-all? Ask a great question.

The most powerful thing we can do as leaders is to stop being a know-it-all and let others be brilliant.


Ruth Schwartz

Ruth Schwartz is the author of "The Key to the Golden Handcuffs". She is a high performance business consultant and leadership coach. Connect with Ruth to participate in the conversation. Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube .