How much do you enjoy persuading people to do what you think is best? How often are you trying to influence people to change their minds? As you prepare your arguments, it’s a bit like getting ready for war: you select your best ammunition, your most powerful weapons. You may communicate in a mainly one-way manner when you make your sales pitch. Asking people at the end of a sales pitch if they have any questions is not genuine engagement because they had no say in developing your plan in the first place.

If you’re competitive, you might really need to win arguments, even when, during the discussion, you realize that you had missed some key points and may in fact be simply wrong. Arguments between two competitive people are mostly always win-lose. The winner is happy; the loser is angry and may look for ways to get even later.

When you meet a new friend, colleague or business partner, how much time do you spend talking about all the great things you’ve done rather than asking questions to learn more about the other person?

In meetings, when a major problem is being discussed, do you love coming up with a winning solution, the brightest possible idea? It’s a thrill to wow people with your wonderful idea. It’s like scoring a goal in sports. You feel like a hero who deserves ardent admiration from your colleagues.

In meetings where your colleagues are suggesting a course of action backed up by strong arguments, how much of a thrill is it for you to poke holes in their arguments or even to shoot them down in flames? What is the cost of such an aggressive, win-lose approach to making shared decisions? Maybe you won the argument and felt like a hero but severely damaged your relationship with a potential ally.

If you excel at developing strong arguments for a course of action, this might be your greatest strength but it could also be your greatest weakness if you alienate others and have too strong a need to be the winner in every debate. In his book What Got you Here, Won’t Get you There, Marshall Goldsmith talked about the top 20 greatest weaknesses of senior executives. He said that they all boiled down to one thing: too strong a need to be right.

Strongly wanting to be right can be a fatal weakness when there is a need to foster shared understanding, collaboration and partnership working. People often resent being sold to or told what to do. Those with less confidence might find it anxiety-reducing to be told what to do but most people will not like you for it. If you convince people to take an action that they don’t fully accept, the best you’ll get is reluctant compliance. But worse could happen. They might ignore your sales pitch or even undermine your plans.

Being a Solution Generator

If you have a technical or professional background, you’ve been trained to solve problems and offer solutions. Is this not worthwhile? Are you not simply following the old mantra of playing to your strengths? It feels good being able to give people professional or technical advice. That’s what you’re paid for.

However, being a solution generator is a limited strength when you have to pacify unhappy clients, gain agreement from difficult stakeholders, forge partnerships or manage people. It works fine when you’re being explicitly asked for professional or technical advice. But when people want their own say in a project or when they want to do something different from your idea, you’re not likely going to get very far just restating your thinking more strongly, loudly or in a different way. In fact, repeating the same message can have the opposite effect of making people more deeply entrenched in their own thinking.

Sticking exclusively to the solution generator role means being overly self-focused, a limited mindset in an age where collaboration, shared ownership and partnership working are essential for success. It needs repeated emphasis that being a solution generator means operating as an individual contributor – fine when you’re in a technical or professional role but a limitation in any higher-level or more complex role.

The greatest risk of sticking to your preferred role of solution generator is that doing so may close down discussion, especially if you are the boss. If you suggest X, your team members are more likely to acquiesce in your idea than take the risk of incurring your disapproval by questioning your thinking.

How to Become a Catalyst or Facilitator

You don’t need to stop being a solution generator entirely. You’ll often need to develop and argue for your own solution to a problem. However, to broaden your leadership effectiveness and style options, try to complement your solution generating strength by becoming more of a catalyst or facilitator. The key to adding this skill set is to do at least as much asking as telling/selling.

Be sure you ask engaging questions, not just analytical ones. If you ask only analytical questions, which are designed to get more information, you’re still wearing a solution generator’s hat because you’re focused on getting the facts so you can make your own decision. To fully engage others in solving a problem, you need to ask them what they think might be a viable solution.

You can set the scene with one of the following opening statements or something similar:

  • “We want a solution that we can all accept. We need to find a compromise that works best for everyone even if it’s not ideal for each of us.”
  • Or, you could say: “I have my own ideas but I want to hear yours first. We won’t get really committed, joint action on this unless we all have a stake in the plan.”
  • A third scene-setting comment could be: “I know you expect the boss to have all the answers but I want to use a different leadership style in situations where it’s important to get your full commitment to a course of action. This means I need to hear what solutions you would suggest. I want this to be our plan, not just mine.”
  • A fourth explanation might be to say that, as you broaden your leadership style, you plan to operate sometimes as a facilitator or catalyst, especially in situations where you want to develop people and get more out of them by fully engaging their brains.

More “What do you think?” Questions

  • How do you think we might deal with this problem?
  • What do you see as the main advantages or benefits of your solution?
  • How might we minimize any negative impacts or outcomes of your idea?
  • How can we avoid any serious political risks of doing what you suggest?
  • Who do you think is most likely to be upset if we do what you advise?
  • What do you see as the main objections that others might raise to your idea?
  • How could we overcome resistance to your suggested course of action?
  • How can we present your idea in a way that others can accept?
  • How can we ensure that your solution is cost effective?
  • How can we make your idea sustainable for the longer term?
  • What do you see as the pros and cons of other options?
  • How might we enlist the support of important influencers?
  • What do you see as the risks or implications of doing nothing or waiting for a while?

No doubt you can add many similar questions to this list but this is a good starter list. What do you think would be some other good “What do you think?” questions?

In a meeting with a number of colleagues, you can also broaden out the discussion by asking what others in the meeting think. For example, you might ask:

  • What are the benefits, disadvantages of this plan for your department?
  • What other options do the rest of you see?
  • Who else do you think should be involved in this decision?

If you are the boss and you express your ideas, your team members might take it as your decision and simply acquiesce or stop making new suggestions. All the more reason to stay in questioning mode. Rather than saying “I think we should do X’ ask further questions such as:

  • How do you feel X would work?
  • What do you see as the pros and cons of X?
  • What are some other options that we haven’t considered yet?
  • What would be a really creative solution to this problem?

Of course, if you’re the boss, at some point, you will need to say something like: “It looks like we’re converging on doing X. Is that what everyone thinks or is there a better option?”

Dealing with Unworkable Suggestions

If someone proposes a solution that you know won’t work, what do you do? If you shoot down someone’s idea, especially in front of others, you could make the situation worse. People who’re thus embarrassed in public may think twice before they make another contribution in a meeting. It’s much better to state what you like about the proposed solution first, naming as many benefits or advantages as you can think of. Then, instead of saying why you still don’t think it will work, ASK a question like: “If we do what you advise and a, b or c happens, then what would we do?”

By saying some positive things and only then asking for ways around potential obstacles, you’re raising difficult questions without being confrontational or making someone feel stupid. When you ask how we might get around the obstacles you foresee, the tone of your voice must be one of genuinely asking for suggestions, not one of sarcasm, ridicule or dismissal. If you fail to ask such questions in a supportive tone of voice, you will basically shut people up because they will feel that the risk of incurring your anger or ridicule is just not worth sticking their neck out.

Further, you can ask others in the meeting what additional benefits they see for this proposal and what suggestions they can make to avoid the pitfalls you’ve raised. It’s good to ask others in the meeting to first state the benefits they can see of the proposed solution before asking about what problems they see or ways of dealing with them. It helps to keep resentment down if others are also asked to first say positive things about someone’s idea before raising negatives or other options.

You might even make this a standard rule for all of your meetings: before anyone can disagree with anything that a colleague proposes, you must list as many positives of your colleague’s idea as possible.

By asking others for their input you’re showing leadership as a catalyst or facilitator rather than as a solution generator. This a very different kind of leadership but it is leadership nonetheless as your questions may move people’s thinking in new directions.

The Emotional Dimension

Any debate over possible solutions to a problem is not just a matter of facts and logic. Emotion plays a big part too. The benefit of saying what you like about someone’s suggestion and then asking for ways around possible obstacles is that you’re helping the other person save face. Failing to do this could needlessly arouse the other person’s anger, hurt, resentment or stronger negative emotions. This could make it much harder for you to get buy-in from that person to even the best idea you can offer. Never underestimate the fact that many people will object to your idea out of anger, hurt or resentment rather than because they genuinely see a problem with it.

Stating the benefits of another person’s idea before questioning how to avoid pitfalls is actually more revolutionary than it seems, because people nearly always focus exclusively on the negatives they see. When people disagree in a meeting, the advocates of one course of action focus exclusively on the positive sides of their own views and the negative aspects of what anyone else is suggesting. This is a recipe for a no-win outcome as well as anger and resentment.

Being overly negative or critical can raise the emotional temperature in any debate; people become angry and, as a result, even more set in their own views. No one likes to have their ideas shot down, especially in public, and they might disagree with anything you suggest simply to get even or save face for themselves. Shooting people down without saying anything positive may make you feel like a hero but it’s a lose-lose tactic.

You could further soften the emotional dimension after making your opening request for suggestions by saying that you want everyone to list both the pros and the cons of their own idea as well as ideas suggested by others. It is then easier for them to accept that their idea has been rejected if they have already stated some of the cons themselves. Plus, this approach also helps people take a balanced perspective on their own ideas rather than just seeing the good sides.

It has been shown in research that we become emotionally committed to a solution we prefer. It’s well known that even scientists and the police will subconsciously look for evidence that proves their suppositions. Whenever we debate with people we must take account of the fact that they may be deeply committed to their own thinking. What’s worse is that criticizing someone’s idea can increase their commitment to it simply out of their need to defend themselves and to save face.

Solution generators take pride in shooting down the suggestions of others so it may be wise to have a developmental discussion with key colleagues and stakeholders of the differences, the pros and cons, of being a facilitator rather than narrowly sticking to the solution generator approach. You might hold a special team building meeting with the agenda: “How can we foster more shared ownership of our decisions and plans?” “How can we get agreement to a decision without unduly antagonizing each other?”

Keep in mind that your objective as a catalyst or facilitator is to find the best solution for the group as a whole. Conversely, with your solution generator hat on, your objective is to get YOUR solution accepted. You may find that such meetings are less emotionally charged if you can get everyone to buy into the need to find the best solution for the group as a whole rather than everyone just pushing their own ideas. It’s a matter of placing more emphasis on the benefits of cooperation than competition.

It’s not always possible to focus on what’s best for the group as a whole, of course, if a proposed change will have a major negative impact on some participants in the meeting, something they would find very hard to accept. You will need some harder-hitting engaging questions to negotiate and deal constructively with conflict as we will discuss in a later chapter.

Why do we so strongly push our own solutions anyway? Well, we are all driven to stand out from the crowd, to differentiate ourselves and to win what we see as the battle of life. This simpleminded tactic may have worked well enough in simpler times but it’s self-defeating in an age of partnership. Today, we need to distinguish ourselves by showing leadership that is facilitative rather than authoritative.

Why bother with shared ownership anyway? It sounds like a lot of work. Well, shared ownership has much more potential to create genuine commitment from others to a course of action. Just accepting your sales pitch for your idea could get you just resigned compliance or worse. Moreover, it’s self-defeating for one person to take on so much personal ownership for an agenda that others are not fully motivated to achieve and, as a result, less is accomplished or one person ends up doing too much.

Strategic Engagement

Most of your day is spent making your own quick decisions on hundreds of issues that come up unexpectedly, as in “fire-fighting.” There’s often no time and no benefit to making decisions in an engaging or participative manner in many everyday situations. So how do you balance making your own decisions with being a catalyst or facilitator? This is where it helps to think strategically about yourself, your time and other resources at your disposal. This means being selective, deciding when you can just make independent decisions or tell people what to do and when you need to get others to share ownership for a course of action.

Here are some critical situations in which to use a facilitative leadership style:

  • To gain commitment from key stakeholders to an unpopular course of action
  • To motivate your colleagues or stakeholders to take ownership for difficult tasks
  • To learn of options you hadn’t thought of, with pros and cons
  • To empower others to get more done through them
  • To develop your team members to do more thinking for themselves
  • To foster innovation in a team, rather than trying to be more creative yourself
  • To avoid taking the entire ownership burden on yourself
  • To foster accountability in others

There is neither the time nor the need to engage people in every decision you need to make. Being strategic about yourself means continually asking yourself what approach would add the most value or be most effective in this situation.

If you don’t challenge yourself to be strategic about yourself, you will run the risk of acquiescing in the solution generator leadership style and just making all of your decisions yourself. It’s worth bearing in mind that the solution generator role is actually the role of a “doer” or “individual contributor” not that of a manager who works through others.