I am a teamwork and leadership coach, but once I was also an operational manager. Many of my colleagues, many other managers and executives complained to me about how they spent the last decade (or five) telling someone (an employee, a mentee, a spouse) that the door was always open. You can tell them anything any time. They invited you to just walk in and do so. They extorted folks to interrupt them, walk in, and complain about anything. The important thing was to let them know that there was a problem or a frustration before it became a disaster… BUT NO ONE EVER DID. The planes crashed. The space shuttles blew up. The supervisor went crazy and shot up the factory. The CFO told some billion dollar lies and many executives went to prison. Even though a leader’s door was always open. Even though they talked every day, liked, and were liked by the culprits. Problems still festered, unannounced, and unheard.
What more could they do?
That question haunted me at nights as I tossed and turned. I am a scientist. I like questions because they inspire research. Yes, I am a scientist, but I spend less than 10% of my time doing my own research. I am scientist-practitioner. My job is to verify and translate psychological knowledge into practical behaviors that working adults can implement to positive effect (without having to do the reading and the research on their own first). So, the question haunting me became, “What more should we all do?”
Open doors don’t work. They are necessary, but not sufficient. Begging for inputs from anybody and a general cry for help don’t work either.
Science could have told us open doors don’t work. We have discovered over a hundred cognitive biases that keep us from hearing well (check Wikipedia for cognitive biases if you don’t believe me), and then there is the mole hill that is really a mountain…the Bystander Effect. Individuals are significantly less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Everyone believes some one else has more time or authority to deal with it, or is doing something about it already, or hears and understands the victim better. For the bystander, denial and rationalization kick in quickly and paying attention to the real situation becomes hard. This is what leaders and teams were fighting against really.
What I tried.
I tried many things that science said should engage listeners and facilitate shared understanding. I coached leaders to declare who they wanted help from by name and to assign specific actions. I coached teams to use shared communication protocols, so that it would be easier to build and share a common understanding of what was going on. These things helped, but they didn’t answer the root issue. They didn’t get people to walk into the leader’s office and proactively state their concerns.
Then one day, fifteen years ago, I read a book on managing in hospitals. Hardwiring Excellence by Quint Studer. One chapter stuck out like a beacon, the one on something he called, “Rounding.” He was applying something that clinical and counseling psychologists frequently do: ask specific and consistent questions in brief one-on-one moments with individuals every week. He was doing this to build a culture of responsibility. I tried it as a manager first, then as a mentor, and occasionally as a professor. It worked so incredibly well that I extrapolated it to my personal life.
If you take away only one thing from this article, please let it be this: I know of only one sure-fire way to get information from family members and colleagues about a problem before it becomes a disaster. Ask 3 specific questions, deliberately and consistently. You can do it too, but it takes commitment, and patience, and consistent practice. It applies to being a parent, a spouse, a coach, a leader.
As an adult, you should do more if you want to avoid mass shootings, mass murders in schools. You should ask the children in your life three specific and consistent questions:
1) What went well for you today?
2) What didn’t go well for you today?
3) Who did something surprising?
And JUST LISTEN.
Show you are sincerely interested and that is all.
I know some of you are thinking that you already ask your kids how their day was. Every day. And you do listen. But the magic is in asking these specific questions that are formulated to draw out actionable information. And in asking them exactly as they are daily, or at least weekly.
Asking these three questions and listening saves kids (and suicidal adults and teams on the brink of unseen troubles), because they help you collect a deep enough understanding to see a large pattern of behavior and make more astute predictions about consequences.
Listening to understand is leadership.
If you ask follow-up questions, then make sure they are open-ended and non-judgmental questions like, “What did you think was most surprising about that?” Above all else, finish the conversation with something like, “I love you. Thank you for telling me about your day.” If a child pushes to know how you feel or think about something they’ve said, then resist passing judgement by answering with something like, “I’m not sure yet. Will you give me a day/ X hours to think about it?” When they agree (and they will 99% of the time, that is another psychological phenomenon), then state exactly when you’ll get back to them and do get back to them on it.
Our first job as adults is not to advise, or impart wisdom, or fix anything, or hope they’ll learn better if we work hard enough to give them the opportunity. Our first job is to be leaders. A leader is the canary in the coal mine. A leader is the first one in, literally. A leader is supposed to see and hear and start developing an awareness that can be distributed to the rest of the team and used to plan actions. The leader is not supposed to have the answer (…that is usually the last one in, the guy in the back of the mine, furthest from the danger, who has the most time to process the information).
True leaders ask good questions. True leaders help followers hear their own thoughts out loud. True leaders help followers think about what they really want and need to do so they can make wise decisions on their own. True leaders influence by Judo, so to speak. We use the principles of maximum efficiency and minimum effort to achieve ground-pounding changes. We listen and thereby use the momentum of the individual already in a complex situation to discover the safest way for the chips to fall.
My specific, actionable, and practical plea for your help.
Please try these three questions and listening with the children in your life. Notice you don’t have to be a parent. It works for uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, teachers, and anyone with a meaningful social connection to the child. It works gradually though, so you have to try it repeatedly. You have to be consistent and specific with the three questions until the problems start coming through your open door.
Research on Rounding is newish. We’re still learning things about how it works and how to make it work better, but I promise you from my own personal experiences that applying it makes a world of difference. I learned to ask great questions, and I’m still learning to ask better ones. I focus more now on seeing and hearing before it’s too late to be of any help. I know some kids better now. Enough to spot some big scares and save some kids before it was too late. Sometimes my kids, sometimes someone else’s kids, too. It feels amazing saving a life by asking the right questions and listening. It feels a whole lot less confusing and sad than wondering why it happened.
Help me save some kids today.
In memoriam of the students who were victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the 24 other fatal, active school shootings at elementary and high schools in America since Columbine High School in 1999.