Solution-Focused Communication Drives Change; Develops Leaders

By Nick Tubach, MBA, PCC. There is a simple, yet strategically significant difference in the communication styles of leaders versus managers. Managers and leaders both use different forms of influence and direction at different times. Leaders, however, demonstrate a bias to influencing by inspiring and enabling, while managers are more likely to command and control.  

For dynamic organizations to remain competitive, they must foster a culture of growing tomorrow’s leaders. That is a tough feat, considering about 70% of employees promoted into leadership positions aren’t qualified. The very trait that gets many individuals promoted is their ability to communicate and contribute as individuals, not because of their ability to manage, let alone lead. A key tweak in communication style can help turn managers into the empowering leaders their organizations so desperately need.

Have you ever had a boss ask you a question that started out with “Why”? Why did you do that? Think back to the emotion you felt… the second that bad “W” word slipped off their tongue.  Your guard likely came up and you might have become a bit defensive. So how does this play out in a professional setting?  

Enter the concept of “ego states,” as discussed in the book Coaching As A Leadership Style, by Robert Hicks. We have three possible ego states; Parent, Child, and Adult. All ego states play an important role in life and business. The key is to appreciate the difference and know which to use when. (Note: Contrary to what the word “child” might suggest, many adults operate out of the Child ego state a fair amount of the time).  

The most effective communication style in most leadership capacities, the one that opens the door to intellectual and motivational stimulation of employees, is when both parties (leader/employee) are operating from an adult ego state. It sends a message of objectivity, parity, reasonableness, and a general non-judgmental attitude. Respectful of each other in every way.  Easier said than done, right? Unfortunately, most of us are experts communicating from the Parent ego state on a daily basis. After all, we’ve been exposed to it our entire lives, starting from early childhood.  

Consider the example of a well-meaning manager who is exhibiting one form of the Parent ego state known as the Critical Parent. Again, I’m not suggesting it’s never appropriate. For example, in cases where there is no margin for error with compliance being 100% necessary, it would make sense. But from experience, we know most opportunities to demonstrate leadership aren’t burdened by absolutes. From the Critical Parent ego state, a boss will rely on a corrective, or maybe judgmental style. “Why haven’t you done this?”, or “You should do this instead of that.” The commensurate response to these questions will invoke a Child ego state on the part of the employee. Much of their energy might be focused on defending their position, justifying their actions, digging in their heels, protecting themselves, or just caving in. Another common Parent ego state is when a boss comes to the Rescue. The commensurate response will also be in the Child ego state, where the employee is likely to simply defer to the boss. 

Solution-Focused Communication

In either example the Parent ego state does not amount to an effective communication exchange and it is unlikely to lead to permanent learning or growth on the part of the employee. On that note, in Jackson and McKregow’s book, The Solution Focus: Making Coaching and Change Simple, you can read about the case for why a solution focus is far more effective than a problem focus. An Adult/Adult ego state communication partnership will invoke thinking of solutions, while the Parent /Child ego states will invoke a focus on the problem. 

Think of focusing on a solution in terms of lifting a heavy weight. If much of your energy is wasted on an awkward grip of the weight you’re trying to lift, then less energy is left for the actual lifting. The same concept applies to a manager’s style to move their employees forward, not just with regards to an immediate issue, but to empower them to become solution focused employees and future leaders. If much of the employee’s energy is focused on justifying their actions at every turn, very little positive energy goes into any reasonable forward movement.  The employee is on their heels and from there most people cannot perform at their best. As a rule of thumb leaders should avoid using the word “Why” unless it is stripped of all negative connotations, such as “Why don’t we grab a bite to eat?” So the next time you are tempted to use the bad “W” word, think of a way you can promote progress by rephrasing the question with a good “W” word, like “what,” for example. 

What are some practical examples?  

Manager (Parent ego): “Why didn’t you include a chart in your presentation to graphically depict sales figures?”

Imagine how you would react.  Now take the idea behind the question and rephrase using a good “W” word.

Manager (Adult ego): “Thanks for putting that together.  What else might you add to depict the trend in these sales figures?”

What I like about this approach, it allows the employee to put all his/her energy into coming up with a solution, and not focus on justifying or defending what they did. After all, as a manager, what can we possibly hope to gain by demonstrating we were right and the employee was wrong? Empower the employee to get it right, figure out the possible solutions, and you’ll see the return on your employee investment grow in spades.

Awareness is the first step to making changes, so what ego state will you be in the next time you are “leading” your employees?  

Note of interest:  He who figures out on their own, will “own it”, “retain it” and become a better problem solver for it. The leader/coach just needs to ask incisive and powerful questions without being critical, judgmental, or rescuing. Easier said than done, but well worth it!

For more about leadership, communication, and how executive coaching can help, schedule a consultation with Nick.