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Ritual Questions

| November 15, 2016

by Jim Bruce

In last week’s Tuesday Reading, Triggers, Once Again, I pointed to a set of questions Marshall Goldsmith asks at the end of each day.  These 20 questions include ones such as:

· Did I do my best today to make progress on each of my priorities for the day?

· Did I do my best today to provide time to meet the needs of my staff?

· Did I do my best today to provide clear feedback to staff, both acknowledging good work and addressing needs for improvement?

They serve as “triggers,” deliberately designed prompts to move you continuously, relentlessly in the direction of productive, beneficial change, to how he approaches his work throughout the day.
Eric McNulty, faculty member and director of research at Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, writing in an essay, Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders, urges us to develop questions to help us better understand ourselves, the environment in which we work and how our life events shape the way we see ourselves and others.  He argues that these questions help us build the self-awareness necessary for growth.  McNulty calls these questions “ritual questions,” and urges that we make asking them a daily practice.  
Ritual questions are aimed at increasing a leader’s curiosity, at building knowledge and wisdom that are essential to success as a leader.  One question that does this is “What did I learn today?”  It’s simple, yet profound.  It causes one to stop and reflect on the entire day.  What did I learn about myself, about those who labor with me, about our clients?  What did I learn about the way I go about interacting with my staff and clients?  What did I learn about our work and how we do it?  About new ways to do that work?  The list goes on. 
Far too often we don’t even think of asking questions such as these much less stop to reflect on our answers.  And, what we could have, should have learned slips away and becomes less likely to be recalled when it could be helpful in the future.  The practice of asking ritual questions enables your brain to confront and process what you have confronted during the day.  Eric Kail, former U.S. Army field artillery officer and course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, has written that this reflection “Requires a type of introspection that goes beyond merely thinking, talking, or complaining about our experiences.  It is an effort to understand how the events of our life shape the way in which we see the world, ourselves, and others.  And it is essential for any leader.”
Taking time to reflect can be uncomfortable.  It is much easier to brush it off by saying I don’t have the time, I’m too busy.  And, besides, it’s a bit scary to look that deeply into your inner self.  But, it is too important not to.  Everyone of us will be surprised at the insights that are just waiting to be uncovered.
Ultimately, you need to develop your own set of ritual questions.  Here are some that McNulty suggests:

· When was I at my best today?

· When was I at my worst?

· What encounter did I handle particularly well today and why?

· What encounter do I believe the other person in the exchange thinks I handled well and why?

· What encounter did I handle poorly today and why?

· What encounter do I believe the other person in the exchange thinks I handled poorly and why?

· What is challenging me today? 

· How can I best step up to that challenge?

· What are my highest priorities for the week?

· What progress am I making on my goals? 

McNulty goes on to write:  “By exploring both positive and negative experiences from multiple perspectives, you develop a more nuanced and dimensional understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and fears.  Such exploration will also help you navigate the constant pull between being who you are as a leader and who others need you to be.”
Ritual questions need not be only for your own reflection.  They can also be integrated into your one-on-one conversations and into team meetings.  Doing this can help everyone become more self-aware and reflective.  This practice can frame your relationships as ones where success is celebrated and obstacles are openly discussed. 
If you make this a regular part of your day as well as of your one-on-ones and your team meetings, you and those who work with you will increase your understanding as well expand your capacity and capability, and increase your impact.
Why not begin today?
Make it a great week by starting a new practice!  .  .  .   jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Eric McNulty, Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders, strategy+business, August 12, 2016.
Eric Kail, Leadership Character:  The role of reflection, The Washington Post, March 9, 2012.