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Business Book Club: Quiet Leadership

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Quiet Leadership by David Rock

The Book

If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you may have noticed that I reviewed another book by David Rock (called Your Brain at Work) not so long ago. At the end of that book, Quiet Leadership was recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of the theories involved in creating behavioural change. As behavioural change is my job, of course, I wanted to learn more.

What is Quiet Leadership?

In the past leaders have been expected to be the ones leading from the front, coming up with ideas and giving clear direction to their people. Perhaps in the days when most jobs were technical or process driven this worked. These days however, people are in roles where they are paid to think so as Rock points out, improving thinking is one of the fastest ways to improve performance.

Quiet Leadership is about improving the performance of those around you without ever having to tell them what to do. By improving people’s thinking you can help them find the solutions for themselves. Not only does this gain greater commitment but it’s often faster too.

Rock says that Quiet Leadership is not an academic theory but a practical six-step guide to having conversations based on the latest research about how our brains work.  Sounds good, but does it work?

Quiet Leadership.jpg

So what did I learn?

There is so much useful information in this book. As always, I can’t do it all justice here but here are some of my key learning points:

Solution focus

One of my biggest insights from Rocks last book, repeated in this one, is to focus on solutions rather than get into the detail of problems.

Rock explains that when we focus on problems it becomes very easy to get bogged down in the details. This is fine if you are trying to establish what has gone wrong with a process or piece of machinery where you need to trace the issue back to the root source, however it’s not a great approach for any other type of problem or dilemma. The reason Rock gives for this is that discussing the problem results in talking about things that are interesting but not necessarily useful. When something is simply interesting we don’t put much effort into memorising it. The other problem with a problem focus is that it also causes people to get defensive, generating the worst possible emotional state for open and honest discussion or having genuine insights.

On the other hand, when we focus on the solutions it primes our brains to notice what will work when we see it. When something is useful we consciously make the effort to learn it so we can apply it to solving our problems. Another argument for a solutions focus is that is easier to start something new than to stop something. Rock explains early in the book that it is almost impossible to deconstruct our brains existing wiring but it’s easy to create new wiring. By focusing on solutions we create new wiring and focusing on this helps us create new habits.

Start the conversation right

Before we start to ask people about their thinking it’s a good idea to start the conversation right so that the person we are talking to is in the best frame of mind for the discussion. For this Rock recommends:

Asking for permission: If we want a quality conversation about thinking then we need to get permission first. It could be as simple as saying:

“I want to ask you about X, is now a good time to discuss it?” or

“It seems you are uneasy about X, could I ask you a few questions about that?”

Rock recommends that you ask permission every time the conversation goes to a deeper level. This is especially important if the techniques in the book are new to you. If your conversations with your colleagues are usually about practical work matters then you are likely to arouse suspicions when you start asking for their thoughts and feelings. The other reason why permission is important is that it shows respect for the other person and makes the other person more open to what you have to say.

Placement: This can involve setting the scene, summarising where you are in the conversation or stating your intent so that you get the kind of response you’re looking for. It ensures both people are coming from the same place and the conversation stays on track.

A really good example of this I read in the book is where the leader says:

“I know in the past conversations about this issue have been a bit tense. I apologise for that. I want you to know that I am not here to get on your case. I want to know how I can best help you”

I think that this small apology can be really powerful if we’ve not handled conversations well in the past. Good placement will help prevent or diffuse a potentially emotionally charged discussion, clearing the way for a more constructive conversation.

Ask about the thinking (not the details)

This is my biggest take away from this book and it provided me with my most powerful insight. Rock suggests that rather than getting into the details of a dilemma (by asking what happened, with who and when etc), we focus our questions on their thinking. Here’s an example. Let's say we have a colleague who says:

“I’d like to be less stressed at work, but it just seems to get busier every week”

We could ask about the details, what feels stressful, the tasks, how busy it is etc. However, this will only drag us further into the problem. Alternatively, we could ask about the thinking:

  • How long have you been thinking about this?

  • How happy are you with the approach you’ve taken so far?

  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking?

  • Do you have a plan for shifting this issue?

  • How clear is your thinking about the plan?

  • What do you notice about your thinking so far?

  • What have you learnt about yourself?

  • How can I best help you further?

This helps people become more self-aware by turning their attention to the thought process that got them to where they are now. After all, this is likely to be the cause of the problem. It also encourages people to take more responsibility for solving their problems. This, in turn, increases their capability and confidence and demonstrates that we trust them.

Clarity of distance

You might be wondering how we can help people if we don't’ ask about the specifics of the problem. Rock talks about the clarity of distance. When we become too close to a situation we see things through our own filters and become concerned with our own agendas. He suggests that leaders can be more helpful if they stay out of the details and instead keep the conversation at a higher level looking for patterns or personal qualities that can’t be seen when we are more involved with the situation. An added bonus here is that these conversations are much quicker than drawn out ones about the finer detail.

Isn’t it quicker just to tell people what to do?

Rock refers to research that shows that employees react negatively to feedback more than half the time and positively just once out of thirteen times.

This means that the most likely response to criticism will be negative, the next most likely response will be no impact and feedback will be helpful once every thirteen weeks if you dish it out every day.

Feedback might be quicker but it isn’t more effective.

Capitalise on the ah-ha moments

Rock describes the brainwave activity that occurs when we have an insight. If you’re following the six steps your colleague should be having quite a few of these. He says that the energy released from having an insight needs to be put into action immediately. We can do this by getting people to flesh out their ideas at this time and encouraging them to commit to specific actions.

Reinforce the new habit

Once we have helped our colleague have a moment of insight we need to help them hard wire the new habit. This means following up. Rock has created a handy acronym for how to best do this, FEELING:

Facts: Establish whether the action has been done and to what extent. There should be no judgement here, just a gathering of facts about what has been done (rather than what hasn’t).

Emotions: Find out how they feel about what they have achieved. By distinguishing between their emotions and what happened we are giving attention to the new wiring in a whole other way. Emotions are a key resource in creating long-term memory. We remember things we feel strongly about.

Encourage: When someone approaches a problem in a new way and they create new wiring we are stretching their thinking and performance. It is essential to encourage their efforts and acknowledge the things have happened. We can deepen this new wiring by generating positive emotions about the new behaviour and focusing on these.

Learning: A central element of following up is to find out what the person is learning. Rock describes asking about the learning rather than the details, as being like watering one specific seedling rather than spraying a hose over the whole garden. Far more effective and a better use of resources.

Implications: Another way we can reinforce the new habit is to ask questions about how the new insight can be applied to other situations. This gives the new wiring more focus and makes links to other parts of the brain, further embedding the new circuits.

New Goal: The final step is to create a new goal. Having reflected on what we have learnt and the implication this might have for other areas of our lives we are beginning to spot patterns. It is likely that new dilemmas will emerge along a similar theme. By setting new goals we can deepen the new wiring and create new circuits and whole new neural maps.

Be generous

Style is as important as substance and your mindset will play a big part here. Be generous:

When you listen: Rock recommends ‘listening for potential’. This means listening with the mindset that the person will solve their own dilemma because you believe they have the answers to their own problem. Generous listening also means listening to their insights, their energy and their possibilities rather than waiting for your chance to speak or sound intelligent.

Listening generously requires us to be free from distractions and make sure the other person has our undivided attention.

When you speak: Speak in a way that means you can be understood. It means being specific, succinct and sensitive in our choice of words. It also means acknowledging and encouraging the other person. You get more of what you praise after all and when we let people know what we appreciate about them it increases the likelihood of seeing that behaviour again.

Last but not least, it means being human. People relate better to another person rather than speaking to a role holder in a position of authority.

A summary of the six steps model. Not a simple process, more a series of skills.

A summary of the six steps model. Not a simple process, more a series of skills.

What did I think of the book?

I was expecting a simple six-step model and as I read through the book I was beginning to think the model was over-engineered. However, by the time I finished the book and saw how all the parts fitted together I was a total convert, convinced that this is how all developmental conversations should happen.

I see Quiet Leadership more as a set of skills to be developed rather than a coaching model or framework which, to be fair, chimes with what Rock says at the beginning of the book. Implementing these skills will take time and practice but I’m convinced the trade-off is worth it for anyone bold enough to experiment with the techniques. Even after 14 years of coaching experience, I’ve learnt so much and I am rethinking some of my own coaching approaches as a result.

I wonder if some people reading this book might be put off by the ‘American coaching speak’ used. Please don’t be, these conversations might seem weird to begin with but this is because they are not commonplace. Every element described by Rock is an essential part of the process and while they could be reworded they cannot be not replaced.

One final thing I liked about this book is the last section in which he shows how the six-steps can be applied to a variety of situations such as dilemmas, feedback and even talking to your children. This is followed by an excellent summary of the key points making them easy to remember and helps bring it all together.

If you want to know more about the implications of neuroscience in the workplace I’d recommend reading his other book, Your Brain at Work, but if you want to help people solve problems for themselves then this is the book for you.

What should I read next?

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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