How MBAs can make their mark with enquiry-led management

Dominic Ashley-Timms looks at the power of adopting a more enquiry-led style of management, in which well-intentioned and authentic questions stimulate deeper levels of reflection in team members

Nobody takes the decision to study for an MBA lightly. But is developing more advanced strategic or financial nous enough to guarantee success if we really want to make our mark with a new employer? As one of my tutors professed: “I don’t know that anything we have taught you will have merit in a future world that is moving so rapidly.” With that in mind, is knowledge sufficient?

Research by Gallup indicates that global employee engagement levels stand at 23 per cent – a key factor in moribund productivity levels. In the UK, that figure is just 10 per cent, one of the worst in Europe. To add salt to the wounds, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) confirmed in its Great Job report that a seven per cent improvement in the “adoption of great people practices” could unlock a GBP£110 billion contribution to the UK economy.

The report also outlines a need for managers to coach others on the job and be able to give both constructive and appreciative feedback. Additionally, it notes that organisations should elevate people-related objectives to the same level as commercial objectives, something thrown into stark relief by the changed expectations of a workforce that has been forced to reassess its values since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Reg Revans, a pioneer of action learning, was struck by the opportunities for learning that came once people were able to own up to their ignorance and engage with and listen to others. Revans established that people learned more deeply from wrestling with their own problems than from consultants or professors importing their ‘prefabricated’ knowledge. He famously said that, “the problem is not to find even cleverer people to come up with the answers, but to find people who can ask good questions.”

Enquiry-led management

It is to this skill that I want to turn because there’s little consensus about the cognitive impacts of being asked a question and even less known about how to articulate them. The most that many of us will have been taught is to ask ‘open questions’. Yet research shows that managers and leaders who can develop more of an enquiry-led approach as a part of their day-to-day management style can better engage the fullest talents of their team members.

To assess the impact that teaching managers and leaders how to change behaviour and adopt this new management style, a randomised-control trial spanning 62 organisations spread across 14 sectors was carried out by the London School of Economics (LSE). It demonstrated that managers learning to adopt this style increased the amount of time they spent coaching team members by an average of 70 per cent. Organisations involved in the trial also indicated a six-fold improvement in employee retention versus control group organisations, a strong indicator of increased employee engagement.

Stimulating thinking

Directing others, or repeatedly marginalising them by succumbing to the need to fix and solve every problem brought to you tends to push people away and inhibit their personal development. Asking well-intentioned and authentic questions intended solely to stimulate the thinking of another person so that they can begin to solve problems themself, does exactly the opposite – it pulls people towards you. Used skillfully as a part of our natural interactions, questions are irresistible and stimulate deeper levels of reflection from which others start to benefit in terms of a growth in confidence from developing their own insights and an improvement in their resilience and resourcefulness.

As a passport skill for a recently qualified MBA, developing more of an enquiry-led style of management – descriebd as Operational Coaching® in the aforementioned research – will reduce your mean time to contribution because the power of your insightful questions for stimulating deeper reflection is non-threatening and value-adding. It shows a willingness to listen and learn from other team members and their accumulated organisational experience, as well as to respect them. At the same time, you will be regarded for the insights you’re able to help generate through your authentic questions.

Unusually, the question here is whether style has value over substance? If your course isn’t specifically teaching you the pragmatic engagement and communication skills that you’ll need to become the manager that everyone will strive to work for, what question would you like to ask?

Dominic Ashley-Timms is the CEO of performance consultancy Notion. Together with Laura Ashley-Timms, he is a co-creator of the STAR® Manager programme being adopted by managers and leaders in 40 countries and a co-author of The Answer is a Question

AMBA members can receive a 25% discount off a copy of The Answer Is a Question, courtesy of the AMBA Book Club

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