The top thing I’ve learned about management is a rule I call “query for judgment.”
Simply put, it’s this: by default, always ask your reports for their judgment before giving your own. Ask their proposals on how to solve a problem. Ask their ideas for products or features. Ask their opinion on prioritization. Ask their thoughts on risks.
Compare these approaches:
- “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly. We need to completely change the messaging on the landing page—focus on the cost savings instead of the new features. Make that your top priority.”
- “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly. I think we need to make major changes on the landing page. What changes should we make?”
- “Team, the new ad campaign is doing really poorly. How can we fix it?”
- “Team, the new ad campaign is converting at 0.2%. How does that compare to our expectations? … OK, well, how can we fix it?”
- “Hey, how’s the new ad campaign doing? … Oh. How does that compare to our expectations? … I agree. How can we fix it? … Change the landing page? That makes sense, what should we change? … That sounds good. Where does this fall on your priority list? … Great, sync up with me tomorrow and let me know how it’s going.”
The top advantages of this, as opposed to giving your thoughts first:
- You learn about your reports. You learn how good their judgment is, how creative they are, how savvy. You learn what they’re good at and what they’re not. You learn what kinds of issues they’re sensitive to. One of your top jobs as a manager is to know your reports; constantly sampling their judgment is a way to learn about them.
- You show your respect for them. You, the boss, are asking them what to do. You’re showing that you believe they can operate at a higher level and expect them to do so.
- They get appreciation for good judgment. If you agree and have nothing to add, all you have to say is “I agree, go for it.” As an employee, hearing that feels great! Or if you think they’re 90% right, you only have to make a minor course correction.
- They might even have a better idea than you. If you’ve hired high-judgment people, this happens sometimes. But if you always tell your idea first, you might never find out. They might not be the type to speak up, or they might be afraid of contradicting you, or they might just never get their creative engine going without that spark.
- Conversely, they get clear feedback when they’re wrong. If an employee has an awful idea or bad judgment, they’ll find out, because you’ll hear that idea and explain why it’s wrong. The feedback loop you enable when you query for judgment works both ways, positive and negative.
- If you disagree with them, you know how far you need to bring them, and in what ways. You might expect to spend your time convincing your engineers that they need to double the performance of your web site, when what you’re actually going to have to spend your time on is explaining why the site navigation needs an overhaul. You won’t know until you hear their thoughts.
- Regardless, they always feel heard. They might complain about your judgment, but they can never claim that they don’t get a chance to voice their own.
- You become a clock builder, not a time teller (in the terminology of Built to Last). You aren’t just getting things done, you’re investing in your people and building bench strength. You’re showing that you expect them to be autonomous, and you’re teaching them that you aren’t going to supply all the answers.
Towards the end of my time at Amazon, I was trying to wean my engineers off of my help. I started having one-on-ones with them that went like this: “So, how’s your project going? … OK, how do you feel about that progress? … OK. What do you think are the next steps? … Sounds good. Which of those is most important? … I agree. What are the top risks this is facing right now? … Good, so, what can we do about them? … Great, thanks.” I gave no input except to ask the right questions; I let them come up with all the answers.
“Query for judgment” is related to “seek first to understand” (from Seven Habits), but it’s doubly important for managers, especially since it doesn’t come naturally. As a manager, you probably got your role by having high judgment, so you’re used to having the best ideas. As a leader, you may feel that you’re supposed to have the best ideas and that your role is to give them to people. But for all the reasons above, you should query for judgment first.