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The 3rd Crucial Question Leaders Need to Ask Every Day

The 3rd Crucial Question Leaders Need to Ask Every Day post image

In previous posts, I’ve written about asking crucial questions to help satisfy the basic psychological needs every human being requires for thriving at work …

1st Crucial Question: Encourage autonomy by asking “What choices did you make today?”

  • Acknowledging that you have boundaries you need to work within, what choices do you have within those boundaries?
  • Upon reflection, what choices could you have made that you didn’t?

2nd Crucial Question: Deepen relatedness by asking “What did you find meaningful about your work today?”

  • What values did you use for making decisions today?
  • How did you make a contribution today?
  • The third question is simple, but powerful.

3rd Crucial Question: Build competence by asking “What did you learn today?”

  • How did you use your expertise to help someone else grow?
  • How did your competence grow today?

On the second day of an Optimal Motivation training session, Lauren shared an example of asking the third crucial question:

“I was so eager to use the ideas I learned yesterday, that I decided to apply them immediately. I got home and asked my ten-year-old son, ‘What did you learn today?’ He rolled his eyes and said, ‘Mom, that’s the dumbest question I ever heard.’

I thought, well, maybe these ideas work in the workplace with adults, but not so much with a ten-year-old. Then my son added, ‘Today was the first day of vacation, we didn’t even have school—so I didn’t learn anything!’

I was stunned. I have a value for learning—that’s why I’m in this training session. Here is my son telling me that the only time he learns is in school! We sat down and had a deep conversation about the value of learning—and how learning happens every day and all the time. We would never have had such a truly remarkable discussion if I hadn’t asked him, ‘What did you learn today?’”

Lauren’s story is a wonderful example, but it also might sound an alarm about how we help people build competence. Anyone who has been around a two-year-old has experienced the toddler’s incessant question, “Why?” Why does the toddler ask “Why?” Because she loves growing and learning. We have good intentions to encourage her learning through systems such as school. But, then we begin spurring her on with sticks in the form of stress to earn good grades, pressuring her to be at the top of her class, and urging her to engage in activities that look good on college applications. Next, we evaluate her learning by rewarding her positive performance with carrots in the form of gold stars, public praising, and student-of-the-month awards. Have you ever considered what happens to the majority of the children who do not receive the rewards?

Some school systems started to see the futility of incentive programs that reward the few and discourage the many. Now the trend is Everyone gets a trophy! This solution does not provide the effective teaching or realistic feedback our children need for satisfying their competence.

Bribing children or adults with carrots or driving them with sticks diverts them from their natural love of learning. We question what happened to a child’s sense of wonder as we watch him years later, just going through the motions at work. Children who fell victim to ineffective motivational techniques for learning are now in the workplace hooked on motivational junk food in the form of pay for performance plans and elaborate reward and incentive programs.

You cannot impose growth and learning on people, but you can remind them of their joy for learning. Have you ever delighted in watching babies learning to walk? What do you notice? They fall. A lot. You never question why they fall. It is obvious they are learning. A fascinating question to ask is, “Why do they get back up?” When they pull themselves up to try again, why are they smiling and giggling instead of crying? The answer is that they find joy in learning, growing, and gaining mastery.

We all have a basic need to build competence—to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities.

You can promote a workplace that doesn’t undermine your people’s sense of competence. Consider creating new norms, as Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, did when he asked his tribe not to talk about mistakes, but instead, focus on learning moments. I’ve heard employees at WD-40 say, “I had a tribe member who had a major learning moment today!” instead of complaining, “One of my employees just screwed up big time!”

At the end of each day, you may be missing a great opportunity if you only focus on, “What did you achieve today?” instead of asking the third crucial question, “What did you learn today?”

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