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Using Curiosity to Create Accountability with Powerful People

| November 17, 2009

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is a piece which I reproduce below “Using Curiosity to Create Accountability with Powerful People” by Roger Schwarz of the Skilled Facilitator.

In his piece, Schwarz notes that when people are accountable to you, you [should] expect then to explain the key decisions and actions they have taken.  Yet, when we are talking with people who have more power than we do, we stop asking questions, we stop being curious.  In this piece, Scvhwarz suggests four questions that you might ask in these situations along with ways to set the context.


Think about making this a new tool in your toolbox.  .  .  .   jim


Using Curiosity to Create Accountability with Powerful People by Roger Schwarz

When you suppress your natural curiosity it is difficult to ask people in power to be accountable.

When people are accountable to you, you expect them to explain how they came to make key decisions or to take important actions. In other words, you expect that they will share the reasoning and intent underlying their questions, statements, and actions. And many times they do.

Explaining a delay in a project, a direct report might say, “I wanted to let you know that I need to delay the project by a week because we can’t complete the analysis this week.”

When these people say things or take actions that you don’t understand or that don’t make sense to you, you probably ask them questions. You might say, “I’m thinking we can still go ahead without the analysis. Why do you think we aren’t able to do this?” This kind of question is a simple and appropriate way of asking someone to be accountable for their thinking and decision.

Yet, when we are talking with people who have more power than us – our bosses and their bosses for example – we often stop being curious. We may not ask questions at all or may ask questions that don’t ask them to be accountable. Why do we do this? We worry that people will think we are too assertive, asking for information that is not appropriate, or that we will be seen as challenging.

Yet, when we give up curiosity, we don’t ask questions to which we need answers. We both contribute to the problem by letting leaders “off the hook,” and we become frustrated with ourselves, and sometimes blame our bosses (or others in power).

When working with people who have more power than us, the most useful thing to do is change our mindset. This sometimes means believing that we are asking questions for the good of the organization, our boss, and ourselves, not because we want to challenge people. It also means assuming that our manager will respond well to our questions if our questions come from genuine curiosity. Sometimes we change our mindset simply by asking the very accountability-oriented questions we think we should not ask – we “behave our way” into being curious.

Here are four genuine questions that you can ask, along with the context in which to ask them. When you ask each of these questions, you are asking the person to be transparent, and, therefore, accountable about their thinking. For each question, it’s important that you are transparent about why you are asking the question. This reduces the chance that the person will incorrectly infer your intent in asking.

“Are you open to exploring [a certain topic]? I’m asking because I don’t want to try to discuss an issue that’s closed for you.” This is a great question to ask to start off the conversation. It will let you know immediately whether the person is willing to proceed. If they say they are not willing, you can follow-up by saying, “Can you share your thinking about why it’s a closed issue for you? I’m not asking to get you to change your mind; I would just like to understand better.”

“Can you help me understand what about the solution doesn’t work for you? I’m asking because it will help me better understand what needs we didn’t address.” This is a great question to ask when someone has turned down your proposed solution. It moves the conversation from focusing on positions to understanding the interests that the person needs to meet. Better yet, if you talk with the person before you propose a solution, you can ask, “What needs of yours do we need to meet? I’m asking so that we make sure our solution incorporates this.”

“What, if anything, would influence you on this issue? I’m asking because I may or may not have relevant information that will make a difference to you and I want to use your time efficiently.” Rather than spend a lot of time and energy guessing what will lead a person to adopt your proposal or change her mind about a decision, this question asks the person to give you that information. It saves everyone time. A variation of this question is “What would need to happen for you to be willing to [take a certain action]?” 

“How, if at all, do you see yourself contributing to the problem? I’m asking because if you are contributing to the problem and we don’t take that into account, we won’t generate a solution that works.”  If your heart started beating faster when you read this question, it’s because this question raises the level of accountability. You are asking the person to move beyond sharing his reasoning to sharing ways in which he is partly responsible for a problem that has been identified.  If you feel uncomfortable with this question, it may be because you are assuming that it’s inappropriate to ask people with more power to be accountable for their contributions. If you feel this way, this is an important assumption to explore. It will limit your ability to have important conversations and to obtain information you need to help people with more power.

Although these questions are useful in many situations, the point isn’t simply to memorize them.  The point is to stay curious in the heat of the moment, so you can compassionately ask people with power to share their thinking with you. If you develop this mindset, you will naturally ask questions that increase accountability.

— Written and edited by Roger Schwarz, copyright Roger Schwarz & Associates, 2009. All rights reserved.