Remember when the US Army had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? If you missed that they did that, you’ve been lucky until now. Maybe you are not asking to hear about it, but I will tell you about it seemingly breaking the rule itself because that’s the sort of “caution to the wind” blogger I am.   

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was the policy that prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted members of the LGBTQ community who served in the military. When the Clinton administration introduced this, if you mistakenly think it is a policy from three thousand years ago, you could not serve in the US military if you were openly gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” sent a clear message to all that you can be prepared to die for your country, but your country doesn’t need to know who you are. Thank you very much. 

When it comes to business, when it comes to building a team, you benefit from knowing and understanding as much as you can about the people who are working with you. I think the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which thankfully ceased in 2011, is not the way to get the best out of your team. I believe the opposite is true. 

I’m not talking about interrogating your employees to find out everything about them. Still, I am discussing creating a culture that allows and welcomes everyone’s experience to produce the best results. It’s essential that, as leaders, we try to understand how our employees are feeling and how we can help. And you do that by asking. Larry King, a legendary interviewer, once said, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. I never learned anything while I was talking.” 

When I heard that, I had a real lightbulb moment. In this episode of The Andrew Sillitoe show, we are going to explore the benefits of asking questions like “Are you fulfilling your leadership potential?”, “Are you asking your colleagues the right questions?” and more immediately, I’ll be asking you “, Are you ready to join us?” 

The concept of asking, rather than telling, is nothing new; it was Steven Covey, the author of ʻThe 7 Habits of Highly Successful Peopleʼ, who said, “First seek to understand before being understood” (1998). Unfortunately, this skill is not utilised enough. It is a basic coaching skill, but typically, in a fast-moving environment, coaching is one of the first things to disappear from a leader’s toolbox. Instead, leaders move towards a directive style of communication, and this approach is a short term gain for a long-term loss. 


If you have a task to complete, chances are there are infinite ways of going about it. As a leader, we can often feel that the pressure is on us to get things done. Phrases like “the buck stops with me” can usually be found living in my head, uninvited and rent-free, but that shouldn’t mean I make everyone else inner so repetitive and anxiety-inducing. In fact, as a leader, it is my job to make my employees as productive as possible, and we are rarely our most effective when we are uncertain or misunderstood. If any of you have ever tried to fix a hole in a boat by shouting at it, you might know what I mean. It simply doesn’t solve the problem.


The most significant barrier to coaching is time. Managers regularly tell me that they canʼt afford the time with their people. My response is always the same – “you canʼt afford not to spend time with your people”. Coaching doesnʼt have to be an hour-long conversation. With the correct technique and skills, you will be amazed at what you can achieve in ten minutes. When it comes to connecting, really connecting with people, a few well-spent minutes can be worth more than we realise. 


How many of you have ever been asked “how are you?” and immediately replied, “fine, thanks”, which is the verbal equivalent of batting a ball as far away as possible. As a manager, as a leader, it is essential to ask questions that offer an opportunity to get to know who you’re speaking to and often who you are working with. 


At the risk of causing myself and you all essay-based panicky flashbacks, let’s imagine a hypothesis. Today’s is going to be:

Why should I spend time asking questions and getting to know my colleagues? 


As I have already mentioned, time is the enemy of leaders and young-looking skin. Still, for one, there is a moisturiser, and for the other, there is the ability to spend your time understanding what truly motivates your team.


Californian based tennis coach and coaching guru Timothy Gallwey defines coaching as: 

“unlocking a personʼs potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” 

Put another way: Give a man a fish, and he will have one fish. Teach a man to fish, and he will be able to fish. Help a man to learn to fish, and the world is his oyster, and the oyster is his income. Please let me know if you’d like that printed on a t-shirt anytime soon.


Spending quality time with your colleagues that allows you to know how they work best will mean you can get the best out of them, and they will be happier and more productive. 


Here is how you could go about it. Instead of throwing your weight around whilst saying, louder than necessary, “It’s my way or the highway”, first aim to understand how your team and the individuals within that teamwork. If your team members are uncomfortable or feel they cannot work in a way that best suits them, they will be spending energy trying to work unnaturally. 


My Grandad* went to a school where if you were left-handed, you had it tied behind your back until you taught yourself how to use your right hand. Why? The results are the same. Words on a page form into a sentence to produce meaning. Why should it matter if it was written with the left or the right hand? Fortunately, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t still operate a right hand only policy in education facilities. However, as leaders, we expect people to bend to fit into the way we like things done. Ask, don’t tell is a way to change that. 


Suppose leaders spend a little bit of time, as little as ten minutes a week, having a pragmatic, goal-orientated conversation. In that case, you’ll find that these discussions will dramatically increase the performance of the individual. And the results for you as a leader are remarkable too. You’ll find that engaging with your team will result in a healthier, happier, more open work environment, which of course, benefits everyone. You’ll notice that productivity will go up, that people feel heard and more confident. Quite simply, they will feel valued. You’ll have created a happier, healthier working culture at the cost of 40 minutes of your time a month. So when you think, “I can’t afford to spend time in this way”, remember that you can’t afford to. 


Everyone has value. As a leader, it is your job to find that value, use it to empower that person, and then get out of their way in no uncertain terms. Ask. Don’t tell. I’m telling you. It works.


I’m Andrew Sillitoe. Thank you so much for reading my blog.  

And that’s the last thing I’m going to say because I’ve never learnt anything when I’m the one talking. 


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