John Whitmore, a pioneer of the executive coaching industry, spoke wisely when he said: “It may be harder to give up instructing than it is to learn to coach.” Many people are under the misconception that a leader’s job is to tell people what to do. That by being in a position of responsibility, a leader has the right to instruct people on what they should do, how they should do it, and when. This doesn’t work as well as we might think.

One of the major drivers of motivation is autonomy. When we take away autonomy, we limit a person’s ability to work creatively, to problem solve, and to take ownership of their projects. A good leader doesn’t simply tell people what to do. Instead, they provide an environment where people perform at their peak – one where the individual is in control of their choices.

Another factor to consider is how our staff are responding to us in every interaction. Research tells us that the brain is constantly assessing whether we are under a threat or reward state. The brain makes an unconscious assessment approximately five times a second. Even a small threat can impact our cognitive and creative problem-solving capabilities significantly, and reduce our desire to connect with others.

Types of inputs that can put people into a threat state include:

  • Being called into the boss’s office when you don’t know why
  • Intimidating body language or tone
  • Feeling like there’s a lack of trust in the relationship

Types of inputs that can put people into a reward state include:

  • Coming up with a solution yourself
  • Feeling respected
  • Clarity around expectations

There’s a further reason why asking not telling is so effective in the workplace. Giving someone the solution is only effective if they use it. If they haven’t been involved in the creation of the solution, there’s a strong possibility that they’re not engaged with it and won’t carry it out. The better option is to empower people to do things their way.

In my experience, this habit of resolving other’s problems by providing them solutions is entrenched in business and it takes mindful leadership to change. So how do we do this? How do we create that environment where people are in a reward state, and can use their own ideas as solutions? This is where coaching by asking not telling comes into the picture.

When someone asks us for help we can either tell them what to do, or ask them what they think. We can also either focus our attention towards the problem or we can focus our attention towards the solution. In both cases, the latter alternative is the stronger coaching tool.

Some examples of asking- and solution-based questions:

  • What outcome would you like to achieve?
  • What thinking have you done so far around this?
  • How might you communicate this to your colleagues?
  • You know your customers well. How can you use that knowledge to find a solution?

Our mission as leaders is to create an environment that inspires autonomy, ownership and creativity. We create this environment best when we coach by ‘asking not telling’. The end result is that our people are passionate, dedicated and able to confidently problem-solve. What can you do to start creating that environment today?

Want to learn more about leadership? We ask top CEOs, ‘What makes a good leader?’