Lead With Inquiry to Build Teams That Learn, Grow, and Endure Together

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In this day and age, if you’re not learning, you’re falling behind. So it’s no longer a question of whether a culture of development is important. We know it’s essential for ensuring people are able to grow, perform at their best and step up to new challenges, even when things get tough. 

As the talent market gets more and more competitive, a culture of development will also make your company a highly desirable place to work. The best people want to be where they are continually challenged and have the opportunity to sharpen their skills and learn new things, while receiving the coaching, feedback and support to achieve their goals. Increasingly, if you want to attract and retain top talent, a culture of development is a non-negotiable.

But knowing you need it is only part of the story. Actually establishing and sustaining a culture where learning is engrained and continuous feedback can flourish at both the individual and systemic/team levels isn’t easy. Especially in organizations that are already more transactionally-focused as a culture, you can’t count on it happening organically. Leaders have to set the stage for this to happen.

Research shows that humble inquiry—asking the right questions from a place of authenticity, respect and curiosity—is really at the heart of creating the conditions for people and groups to learn. Here are three steps leaders can take to lay the groundwork for people and teams to be able to learn and grow together.

1. Foster relationships with team members as people, not as workers.

To get the best from the team, people need to feel safe and entitled to speak candidly—with each other and with their leaders. And that means leaders have to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. Unfortunately, this goes against what many leaders have been conditioned to believe, thanks to persistent management myths about what constitutes power and influence.

Many managers still operate from a command-and-control position. They believe that the way to exert authority is to project what you know and direct how things are done. They may not say it directly, but their behavior makes it clear that feedback, input or challenges to their ideas are not welcome. Because the interactions they have are purely transactional, these leaders don’t tend to develop relationships with the people on the team beyond a person’s role as a cog in the machine, a means to an end. 

How does this affect the team’s ability to learn and grow together? Often, when we see teams struggling to share honest feedback and learning experiences with each other, it’s because it’s “not how things are done here.” It’s not the cultural way. That cultural standard is set by the leaders. It’s up to them to change it.

Especially considering the pace of change and complexity in today’s environment, being an effective leader requires recognizing and embracing the fact that there’s more knowledge in the room than you could possibly have. As Edgar Schein, author of Humble Inquiry, explains, to benefit from that collective knowledge, you have to reduce the “power distance” between you and your team members so they’ll be comfortable telling you what they really know. 

The good news is, getting started down this path doesn’t have to be that complicated. Grab lunch or coffee (in person or virtually) with individual team members. Make a point to learn about their interests, goals and lives outside the context of work. Be willing to reciprocate by sharing something about yourself as well. This can be done in as little as 20 or 30 minutes with no agenda except “let’s learn something about one another.”

By getting to know your team members as whole people, not just workers, you can build the relationships necessary to foster the kind of open, honest feedback and continual growth that’s central to a culture of development. 

2. Help team members feel comfortable speaking up.

Especially in cultures that default to the old command-and-control style of leadership, it can be hard for leaders to open themselves up to feedback and input and be more vulnerable with their team members. They may worry that by building relationships with their people, they’re giving away their power. 

In fact, the leaders who have the strongest relationships with their teams are typically in the best position to not only handle feedback but disagree with it if necessary. Because they have that strong foundation in place, it’s easier for them to navigate disagreements without damaging trust or shutting down future ideas and suggestions. As a result, the team and the organization continually learn and improve.

Because this is an important dynamic for successful team interdependence, leaders should model the behavior they want to see and encourage it through their coaching conversations, making sure everyone on the team feels comfortable challenging the status quo and contributing their ideas. Schein highlights several opportunities for leaders to widen the door to hearing honest input from team members:

    • In a one-on-one settings: Ask questions like, “I’d like to know a bit more about your world in order to do a better job [coaching, managing, mentoring, etc]”
    • In the moment: “I’m not sure what to do here. Help me help you.”
    • In general: Work as closely as possible with those who have the problem. See things through their eyes. This could be done by working on the problem (in a brainstorm or workshopping a problem), or through things like a rotating tradition of “show and tell” during a weekly standup.

Through these kinds of situations, leaders can further reduce the power distance and create an environment where people feel safe and even encouraged to speak up.

3. Harness psychological safety to build teams that develop together.

To really create a culture of development is to start thinking of team members as contributors to one another’s development. Put another way, leaders should ask themselves how they can create an environment where learning together is the goal.

In her book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete In The Knowledge Economy, Amy Edmonson points to her study of surgical teams at 16 major medical centers testing a difficult new procedure for performing cardiac surgery, one that required “greater interdependence and communication among team members.”

In evaluating the most successful teams in the study, Edmonson found that the teams’ and leaders’ surgical experience didn’t matter. Neither did educational background or the presence of a powerful and decisive leader. Instead, the most successful teams “had leaders who actively managed their teams’ learning efforts.” 

Among other things, these leaders “framed the challenge to motivate teams to learn.” That included emphasizing “the importance of creating new ways of working together over simply acquiring new individual skills.” Again, a team functions on its interdependence, and that includes how well it works together in the process of learning new skills.

Crucially, these leaders created an environment of psychological safety that fostered communication and innovation. 

Learning and growing in a world of continual innovation and disruption means team members are inevitably going to face complex challenges that no one has experienced before. There won’t be any existing playbooks to go by. There will be bumps along the way. An environment of psychological safety will allow people to try new ideas without fear of punishment or reprisal if things don’t go as planned. Just as important, it will allow them to challenge each other to do better, knowing everyone is there to learn and grow together.

Building a Collaborative Culture of Development

Individual learning is a key component of any culture of development. But rarely do people operate completely isolated from one another in today’s organizations. Make sure your leaders are setting the stage for collaborative learning by equipping them with the mindset and skill set to: 

  • Build strong relationships with the people on their teams
  • Encourage and coach team members to provide open and honest feedback 
  • Create an environment where it’s safe to learn together and challenge each other to keep getting better

By making learning a team sport, you’ll lift performance exponentially and create an organization that’s more than just the sum of its parts.


About Author
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Hudson Institute of Coaching

One of the early leaders in the field of coaching, Hudson Institute of Coaching has been providing developmentally based coach training for leaders for more than 30 years. We set the standard for experiential learning programs that lead organizations and people to reach for their best as leaders and human beings in our global world.