What is it that makes great managers and leaders different from the average? And how can people become better leaders faster? These have been our two guiding questions at LifeLabs Learning, where we’ve studied and taught leaders at over 2,000 companies worldwide.
The research: great managers in action
Our researchers began by recruiting managers who achieved great results and reviews from their teams and average managers. We interviewed both groups but couldn’t spot any real differences in their answers. It took us dozens of disappointing interviews to realize that we were doing our research all wrong. We couldn’t ask people what they did; we had to see it ourselves. So, our researchers observed hours of one-on-ones, feedback sessions, and team meetings in search of big behaviors that stood out among the best leaders. But we were wrong again. What we found instead were behaviors so small that we barely noticed them.
The discovery: Behavioral Unit (BUs)
We call each micro behavior we found in our research a Behavioral Unit (BU for short). These small behaviors stood out among great leaders across different industries and cultures. And of all the BUs we observed, three came up most often: (1) Q-step, (2) Playback, and (3) Deblur. Below you’ll find an overview of each BU so you can become an even more effective leader faster (and help others do it too).
BU #1: Q-step
Imagine you observe a one-on-one between a manager and their direct report. You switch on your stopwatch, let it run for 15 minutes, and count every question the manager asks. In the span of 15 minutes, how many questions do you predict an average manager will ask? How many questions will a great manager ask?
The result: two questions on average and ten questions for top managers. Not only does question quantity set great managers apart, but it’s also a marker of great negotiators, influencers, creative thinkers, salespeople, and even romantic partners. Great managers ask about five times more questions than average. And they do another thing that’s unique: they make questions their first step. This default to questions is why we’ve called this BU the Q-step.
Why does the Q-step matter? When managers make questions their first step, they diagnose underlying issues, give their team a sense of autonomy, help them develop their problem-solving skills, and create a sense of commitment rather than compliance on their team.
Give it a try: Imagine someone suggests an idea that hasn’t worked in the past. Instead of saying, “that will never work,” what is a genuine Q-step you can ask that will build trust, engagement, and problem-solving skills in others?
Idea bank: Want to Q-step more often? Here are some of our favorite Q-steps to use: “What led you to that thought?”, “What’s important to you about it?”, “What are you hoping to accomplish?”, “What’s standing in your way?”, and “What’s the next step?”
BU #2: Playback
The next BU we noticed goes by many names. At LifeLabs Learning, we call it the Playback: “I think I heard you say ____.” It seems like a simple paraphrase of what you heard, but it is so much more. Playbacks create clarity, catch misunderstandings, and build trust faster – especially when working across distance and culture. It showed up in our research on great managers, but it’s also essential in a wide range of professions, including physicians, psychologists, salespeople, consultants, lawyers, pilots, and hostage negotiators.
Give it a try: Playback this message: “We never have time to finish all the work we try to take on. We’re running in too many different directions with too few resources.”
Idea bank: You can play back the key information you heard: “If I understand correctly, you said _____,” the feelings you noticed: “It seems you’re feeling frustrated/nervous/disconnected/excited,” and/or the underlying needs: “It sounds like what you’re needing is reassurance/autonomy/connection/clarity/meaning.”
BU #3: Deblur
When we observed conversations among average teams, we noticed they were littered with what we call ‘blur words’: words that can mean different things to different people. For example: “better,” “less,” “improve,” “scale,” and “culture fit.” Great managers are always on the lookout for blur words. When they notice them, they use a BU we call Deblur.
You can Deblur yourself (“Can you get this to me ASAP… and by that I mean by 5 pm today?”) or help Deblur others (“So we’re aligned, can you share what ‘urgent’ means to you?”). Deblurring prevents miscommunication, resolves conflict faster, improves decision-making, makes delegation easier, reduces the impact of bias, and makes feedback a lot more helpful.
Give it a try: What Deblurring questions would you ask if you heard this message?
“Our customer experience is terrible. We’ve got to do something about it immediately.”
Idea bank: Here are some of our go-to Deblurring questions: “What does _____ mean to you?”, “Can you share an example?”, “What do you see as the impact of ____?”, “How could we measure that?” and “What would tell us we’ve succeeded?”
Once these BUs become visible to you, they will be impossible to unsee. And because they’re so small and distinct, the best part about them is that people can learn to use them right away. The result? Stronger team engagement and faster performance (and much more fun being a manager).