The Power of the Perfect Question

November 12, 2015
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

Companies spend more than $1 billion on employee engagement surveys, a very traditional means of finding out what is standing in the way of team member satisfaction and fulfillment.

At Barry-Wehmiller, we prefer a much more personal approach.

We talk to people. Actually, we let them do the talking. We simply ask the right questions and then we open our ears and our minds and we listen.

Years ago we discovered the incredible power of asking one thought-provoking and open-ended question.

Back in 2002, after we drafted our cultural vision statement, the Guiding Principles of Leadership (GPL), we began holding what we called “GPL Sessions” designed to take our new principles off the wall and imbue them deep into the hearts and minds of team members across the organization.

We gathered groups of people together at each of our facilities to discuss our new set of beliefs and their feelings about it. We talked about how it reflected our aspirations for what we should and could be and then asked that very important question: “What can we do better?” Essentially we wanted to know where our actions weren’t aligning with our vision.

The value of these sessions was—and still is– priceless. Back then, when our culture was in its formative stages, the candid dialogue opened our eyes to things we had never noticed before. Because of these sessions, we eliminated archaic practices, identified leadership gaps, discovered hidden talent and learned countless lessons about what it meant to walk our talk. Our team members saw that we were really listening to them and were intentional and passionate about becoming the kind of organization that we described in our Guiding Principles of Leadership.

We could not have achieved these same results through something as impersonal and one-dimensional as a survey. This human-to-human two-way communication, during which we invited honest and often painful criticism, established huge amounts of trust and mutual respect, enabled people to reveal their emotions and frustrations, and sent the message that we were true partners in creating a better future.

“I’ve never worked at a company who did anything like this,” said Caroline Sutcliffe, Event and Project Specialist who recently joined our corporate communications team. Caroline attended her first GPL Listening Session in September. “People who had some difficult issues came forward to ask for help, but even if you don’t have any concerns, it just feels good to have the opportunity where someone will listen to you. It makes you feel valued because you feel like the company wants to hear from you and is including you in making things better for the future.”

There is so much power behind that simple question “What can we do better?” And we continue to ask it throughout our global organization.

Earlier this year, in preparation for the release of our book, Everybody Matters, which tells the story of Barry-Wehmiller’s journey from traditional business to a people-centric organization, we encouraged listening sessions to hear how our team members felt the culture in their corners of the organization aligned to what was described in the book. Although we know our journey to a fully people-centric culture is a work in progress, we felt it was a good time again to ask that powerful question in order to identify the gaps. As always, our team members offered critical feedback and opportunities for improvement that we have already begun to address.

Because of the positive impact this tool has had on Barry-Wehmiller and our people, we now assist other organizations in conducting effective listening sessions through our BW Leadership Institute (now Chapman & Co. Leadership Instituteread more here.) The genuine feelings and deep-rooted issues that our trained facilitators help bring forth at these sessions are often the most critical first step in transforming to a people-centered thriving organization.

“So often we speak of leadership talks and meetings, but what is truly needed is leadership listening,” said Matt Whiat, a partner in the BW Leadership Institute.

Unlike surveys, listening sessions let you know you’ve been heard, one of the most positive and affirming experiences you can have. When someone truly listens to you, it validates your worth. “I matter,” it says. “This person cares about what I have to say and therefore cares about me.”

“With solely a survey you get data, but with a listening session you get the data and the human connection,” Matt said. “Would you give your family members a survey? Then why use it on the people in your span of care? They are someone’s family.”

So instead of turning to expensive and impersonal surveys to determine what’s keeping your team members from being fulfilled, consider the power of human-to-human communication. Ask the right questions and you’ll turn your audience into drivers of positive change rather than mere passengers in the process.


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