The trap and the treasure hunt


Even well intentioned leaders can sometimes use questions that break down a team rather than build it up. One of these question types I call the trap, and the other is the treasure hunt.

The trap works like this. You ask someone a question, expecting that they will get it wrong, so that you can say “gotcha!” and tell them how you know better. 

“How’s your productivity this month?”
“It’s fine.”
“Then why is it 10% lower than last month?”

Maybe this feels like something a leader is supposed to do. We may be especially prone to this in medicine, where we have a long tradition of “pimping” or asking on-the-spot high pressure questions of trainees (just because it’s a tradition doesn’t make it a good idea). Using the trap on someone might make you feel good to catch them in a mistake, but what does it do to them? It makes them question your intent every time you ask them something. Is this an honest query, or a trick question? They start thinking of what answer you want or expect rather than replying with honesty. It teaches them that they can’t trust you. 

Despite myself, I will sometimes use this technique with my kids about doing homework, cleaning up, and other small household tasks. It hasn’t made anything better yet.

The second is the treasure hunt. It goes something like this: 

“You might want to see this.” [hands over a printout of an email thread]
[Takes a few minutes to read it over] “Looks like there was a problem with the new process, but it was solved.”
“But why didn’t they include me in the original email, when I’m the one responsible?”

The treasure hunt involves giving someone a lot of information and expecting them to find what you’re asking about. It’s basically “guess what I am thinking,” and is similar to the trap in that way. It’s not about an honest desire for an opinion or coaching by facilitated learning, it’s side-stepping the responsibility of saying something directly by making the recipient figure it out for themselves. 

I’ve also used a passive-aggressive version of the treasure hunt with my kids, I’m embarrassed to say. Usually along the lines of “Come look at this dinner table [which is still messy]. Do you see anything wrong?”

Hey, I’m as human as anyone else. 

Just like many of the people who use these types of questions, I’m not trying to be difficult on purpose. Trick questions are common enough that they must serve a psychological need. If your leaders used trick questions, maybe you think that’s how leaders act. And the treasure hunt might be used when a person feels unsure of themselves with someone they see as higher status or experience. This can be especially likely in a hierarchical structure such as medicine. Nonetheless, both of these techniques can lead to inefficient communication, lack of trust, and dysfunctional teams.

The way to get rid of the trap and the treasure hunt is to say what you mean. Replace gotchas and tests with directness and curiosity. Directly tell someone what you are thinking and be curious as to what they have to say. Notice when others on your team are using these types of questions, and nudge them toward being more direct.

“I looked at your productivity this month, and I noticed it’s down 10%. What do you think is going on?”

“There’s a problem with the new process I deployed. But my main concern is that I was not included in the email about it.”

“You’ve given me a lot of information here – can you tell me what your concern is?”

A strong team can only exist when team members feel safe enough to be honest. Don’t make people guess what you are thinking. Don’t make people wonder if you are talking to them or testing them. Say what you mean and truly listen to the reply. 

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