Why leaders should ‘show their working’

“Show your working’ is an expression we use when working with leaders around improving their communication and developing their teams. The concept comes from the days doing high school maths where we were encouraged to ‘show our working’ during the exams so that even if the end answer was incorrect we would receive marks based on the working.

In the context of leadership the ‘show your working’ is really ‘show your thinking’. Your team want to understand how you think as much as what you think. By this we mean that they are most interested in understanding how you got to the solution so they an follow the same process to the same solution.

When you don’t share your thought process and use of other information to get the solution, you rob your staff members of one of the most important learning opportunity that situation offered.

Leaders that adopt a coaching approach instead of a telling approach tend to get better engagement scores from their staff. A coaching approach means that you help your staff member develop their understanding by not solving the issues directly but ‘coaching’ them through the process. It tends to take a few minutes longer in every exchange but ultimately leads to greater engagement and leverage.

Consider the following exchange:
Staff – “I have an issue, what should we do here?”.
Leader – “In these cases we should do X”.
Staff – “Ok thanks”.

Very limited learning and development. Certainly there are situations where you can’t take the time to explain your thinking but in most businesses they are rare.

This is what we help leaders move to:
Staff – “I have an issue, what should we do here?”
Leader – “OK what are you thinking we should do?”
Leader – “Why that option?”
Leader – “What other solutions did you consider?”
Leader – “Why did you dismiss those options?”

If they have chosen the right or appropriate solution:
Leader – “Excellent, that is the same reasoning and solution I would have chosen as well”.

You might even want to extend it to:
Leader – “Excellent, that is the same reasoning and solution I would have chosen as well. In future with decisions like this one I am comfortable for you to make them using the same reasoning without my involvement”.

The key is to understand how they got from A to B.  If correct them make sure that they know they have matched your thinking and outcome (be crystal clear).

If they failed to identify the correct path, this is the coaching opportunity  to show them not only the path they should have chosen, but to clearly and with as much detail as possible, explain the ‘whys’ around your decision.
Leader – “In this case the best solution is X and the reasoning (or the missing information) is …..”

The most important element is that you have had a discussion about the source (thinking) instead of just the outcome (decision) and this is where the real leverage and engagement is gained.

Much of our work is with new leaders or experienced leaders in new roles and it is also very beneficial to use the same concept with newly acquired staff to understand their thinking.

When you are working with new staff one of the most powerful assessments you can make is their approach to problem solving, what steps do they take, what other information do they collect and how consistent are the outcomes. If you can ascertain their capability early you will know if they can be relied upon to make decisions without you or if you need to retrain their process so that they come to the same outcome as you would.

Ultimately if you can trust your key staff member’s process / approach then you can trust their ability to be consistent in solving problems and making decisions.

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