What Happened?

Tom Peters

Inc. magazine: “How did you divide the company up into the appropriate teams?”

Ralph Stayer: “I didn’t. Why is that my problem? (Employees) divided it up.”

Ralph Stayer is chief executive of $130-million (revenue) Johnsonville Foods. His encompassing brand of worker involvement (not to mention growth and profitability) has been reported in this column before. But this revealing answer to an interviewer pinpoints Stayer’s simple success formula.

The pages of the interview are filled with such responses. “We want to fix the real problem, which is having people understand they ought to be responsible for their own workplace,” Stayer says. “Take boomboxes. People were coming to me and complaining that the music was too loud. … How am I going to solve that problem? … Solomon couldn’t solve that one. But I can say, ‘That’s your workplace, you guys decide. You solve this any way you want.’ … Pretty soon they start looking at other stuff that frustrates them.”

Stayer’s approach struck home as I read an essay by Anthony Suchman. The University of Rochester professor of medicine tried to give his daughter’s third grade class a feel for the life of a doctor, and he had students perform mock medical interviews on “patients” (Suchman, the teacher) with hypothetical problems. The kids, he observed, are a lot like most medical students and doctors. They cut to the chase and pursue pet hypotheses (to complaints of a stomachache, for example, a third-grader asked whether the “patient” was under stress); they invariably failed to ask the much more basic, “What happened?”

Dr. Suchman argues that the poverty of open-ended questioning among medical professionals comes from training regimens—starting in nursery school—that make it risky to “leave the safety of right answers and (learn to) relish the unknown and unexpected.”

Principal Dennis Littky of Thayer High School in Winchester, N.H., encouraged one of his teachers to breach tradition and present a six-week special class “on questioning.” The youngsters ate it up, Littky reports, but he “got a huge amount of flak—from parents. They didn’t want their kids pestering them with questions. We thought our job was somehow forcing these kids to use their minds: The parents thought we should take care of their kids during the day and eventually reward them with a diploma.”

Littky’s questioning class, Suchman’s “What happened?” and Stayer’s “Why is that my problem?” share an essential idea: When in doubt, respond to a query with a query and turn responsibility (for learning, understanding, growth, boomboxes) back to “them.”

I’ve tried it in recent seminars, with some success. A senior sales executive asked what I thought about a new objective-setting program he’d developed, and how and when it should be evaluated. I responded by asking him: (1) what his salespeople thought about it, (2) how they thought it should be evaluated, and (3) when they thought it should be evaluated.

A plant manager posed an even thornier question. How, following a merger, should he deal with a salary gap between two similar staffs from the merged firms. Why not ask them how to deal with the issue, I replied. After all, they (and he) were the ones who would suffer the consequences of any decision perceived to be arbitrary or inequitable.

All of the above hovers near the essence of humanness, which transcends the world of business and even the classroom. In clinical psychology, “Rogerian Therapy” (after the late Carl Rogers) has been quite effective. It works like this:

Patient: “I’m feeling blue.”

Psychologist: “So you are feeling rather poorly.”

Patient: “Yes, over the past few days, I’ve etc., etc.”

Psychologist: “So recently you’ve etc., etc.”

Though I’ve provided a mere caricature, it does get to the heart of the matter: Lead patients (students, workers), a tiny step at a time, toward self-discovery—i.e., get them to ask themselves, “What happened?”

The expert wants to be efficient, to help, at least unconsciously to demonstrate her or his expertise, whether classroom teacher or chairman of a $130-million company. In most cases, doing so inhibits the very growth she or he is attempting to promote. In his novel The Rebel Angels, Canadian Robertson Davies sums it up, “To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct themselves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall (which will teach him not to fall again), when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy because holding in is more demanding than crying out.”

Following Davies et al., I’ve suggested in seminars that managers earn 75 percent of their pay for declining the opportunity to “solve” other people’s problems. “Ask yourself at the end of each day,” I’ve urged only half facetiously, “whether or not you’ve merited that three-quarters of your pay that comes from keeping your trap shut and allowing ‘them’ to learn in their own fashion.” So, have you?

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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