The Power of “What” and Presumed Inclusion

I sometimes wonder about the value I bring to the organizations I work with. I get a little concerned, at times, that maybe I’m not as smart about my work as I think I am, and that I should hold back a bit instead of prove myself a fool.

That is misguided thinking. You contribute nothing when you are silent, except creating the perception that you don’t have anything to add to the conversation. If you don’t, then good. Don’t take up time repeating what others have said. But we all have original thoughts, and inclusion is a way of getting those out.

“Presumed Inclusion” is the environment many managers think they run. They believe that everyone understands that their point of view is encouraged and welcomed, and that if someone doesn’t speak up, then they must not have something to say. This, too, is misguided. I know many personable, sincere leaders who would presume that they govern with inclusion as a core process of theirs. They believe all employees accept the open door policy and would not hesitate to use it.

They could even extend the reminder daily and think that they are fully supporting the concepts of inclusion and open discussion.

Nothing beats an invitation.

Consider this scenario:

In a meeting with ten people, the team leader has been asking for input to a particular problem. People are sharing ideas, asking questions to clarify, debating points of view with an ear toward clarifying ideas, not toward winning. One person has been relatively quiet, and the leader turns to them and says “you’ve been pretty quiet down there at the end of the table, John. Do you have any ideas?”

John becomes paralyzed a bit, not sure how to answer that question. He’s thrown off by the recognition the boss is sort of calling him out for not participating at this point, and now feels like he has to come up with some sort of winning answer.

Now how about this simple change to the leader’s phrasing: “John, I can tell you are taking all this in and listening carefully. What ideas do you have? How would you approach this situation?”

There is still some pressure there, but the leader, using the word “What” has implied that he believes John has an idea, and he wants to hear it.

“Do you have any ideas?” – Nice request, but not inclusive. It does not imply belief that the person will bring value to the conversation.

“What ideas do you have?” – Far more inclusive. It shows trust and confidence.

“What” is a powerful word.

  • What feedback do you have for me?
  • What approach would you take to this problem?
  • What part of the project would you find most interesting?
  • What can I do to help you?

Do you presume that you are a master of inclusion? Do you think that by being approachable, reasonable, and lead open discussions that you are by definition inclusive? Being inclusive takes conscious effort and habit. It requires conscious use of “what”.

By the way, that doesn’t mean all “what” questions are good for inclusion. “What the hell were you thinking?” comes to mind as one to avoid.

What will you do differently to further inclusion where you work?

Leave a reply