Ask And You Shall Receive - Why and How To Develop A Socratic Team

Dr. Sean Basinger

Ask And You Shall Receive - Why and How To Develop A Socratic Team -

How can leaders use the Socratic method to ask the right questions to improve their team members’ performance?

As teams present the advantage of pooling more talent and better competencies together than individuals, they should get the job done better and faster, according to conventional wisdom. Yet time and again, research has demonstrated that teams significantly underperform, compared with individuals working in isolation.

The basic reason why teams underperform while individuals thrive stems from leadership, rather than management. A true team leader is one who empowers people in a Socratic way; that is, through open conversation and creative questioning. This helps challenge team members’ thinking and leads teams to self-design and work out solutions by themselves, rather than constantly waiting for, and depending on, management’s guidance.

One example of a successful leader who improved his team’s performance through the Socratic method is George Washington. The Continental Army’s general-in-chief would often let forth a battle proposal to his officers, but counter-proposals from them were always elicited, and the tactics were invariably left to the officers to decide upon. This strategy led to a string of victories that eventually secured America’s independence from Britain.

Here are nine guidelines to help you ask the right questions to improve Socratic team performance:

1. Through one-to-one sessions, energise team members by openly discussing a clear and specific, but not overly detailed, vision, mission and set of objectives.

2. Invite them to a team-building session. Make sure everyone attends.

3. During this session, display naiveté when asking which members should do a certain task and for what reasons.

4. Do not interfere with the task assignment process and make sure it is free from any form of coercion.

5. Make sure each member is given the opportunity to voice their opinion and allowed to expose personal feelings on team composition, allocation of tasks and responsibilities, as well as execution and management of work progress and process.

6. Never lose patience when listening. Research from Dr Meredith Belbin highlights many leaders belong to the “shaper” category – challenging and dynamic. However, these leaders are also prone to provocation and offending people’s feelings. It is often the “plant” type – imaginative and unorthodox – who comes up with the best creative ideas. In a discussion, the “shaper” should allow the “plant” and all other team members to communicate freely, no matter how odd their ideas may sound to the self-styled, “sober-minded” leader.

7. Guide team members to the rightful composition by exposing flaws with perhaps silence or a frowning of the eyebrows – do not exploit errors in a way that would lead to any particular person’s loss of face. Since this is a group discussion, guidance must be as light as possible. The best-suited person for that role would be a hands-off, mature and experienced people co-ordinator who is confident yet not provocative.

8. Let the team claim ownership of its own structure and responsibilities.

9. Ask the team whether it is still satisfied with the overall vision, mission and objectives, as well as,the frequency and depth of management’s monitoring. If not, propose that steps 1-6 be repeated until the team “owns” the project.

Adopting a Socratic leadership style also encourages the continuous modification of a team design to better address external challenges. Socratic teams are vested with the authority to self-design, define individual tasks, allocate responsibilities, and execute and manage work progress and process as they see fit. This leads to better governance, higher morale and more creativity. Compare the results and efficacy of well-contrasted and self-governed boards of directors with limited-authority work groups where “the ball is there and it is passed, but it soon bounces out of bounds because everyone is waiting for instructions on how to catch it”.

Socratic teams allows leaders to free up valuable executive time and energy by concentrating on their main task, which is to set a common vision, mission and objectives for the team, monitor its work and delegate the rest. Other than allowing busy executives to escape the pitfalls of micro-managing their teams, it also allows team members to work out better solutions.

To sum it up, a Socratic team is akin to a well-rehearsed orchestra where the conductor makes as few moves as possible, thereby saving his energy and allowing him to listen. When adjustments are required, the conductor is always ready to guide the musicians – and lets the magic work by itself.

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