The Inquiry-Advocacy Matrix: The Secret to More Effective Communication at Work
“A leader is responsible for whether or not their team understands the plan, the strategy, and the vision,” writes Workfront CEO Alex Shootman in his upcoming book, Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Leader’s Get Work Done. He adds, “If someone doesn’t get it, it’s on you.”
That’s a heavy burden, taking ownership of how others interpret the things you say as a leader. And yet, as Alex says, it's essential. How do you make sure you’re saying the right thing at the right time so you’re clearly understood?
That’s where a simple tool called the Inquiry-Advocacy Matrix comes in. This tool will help you determine if you’re using the right communication style for the right situation, which can have a drastic impact on how others hear what you’re saying. And given that effective communication is more important than ever in our current environment of constant digital transformation, it’s a critical concept to master — especially for leaders.
So, how do you put this tool into practice?
Inquiry vs. Advocacy
First, let’s get on the same page with our definitions. When we’re communicating from a place of inquiry, we are curious, undecided, open-minded, and genuinely willing to listen. But when we’re communicating from a place of advocacy, we are more confident, passionate, predecided, and certain of our position. There is absolutely a place for both traits, as long as they’re employed in the right situations.
In an article for Forbes, Liz Guthridge argues that while you may be naturally more comfortable with one than the other, “you should make a conscious effort every now and then to move out of your comfort zone and work with your non-preferred choice. That helps you be adaptable and flexible.”
Here’s a real-world example: A friend of mine worked for a company that was undergoing a name change in the midst of a buy-out and reorganization. The leader who was managing the transition went through the motions of seeking input from the employees about the company’s new name, which would encompass three existing brands. He acted like he was in a place of inquiry, saying things like, “Share your ideas! We want your thoughts! This is your company too!” But when this leader unveiled the company’s new name less than 48 hours after seeking everyone’s input and the name elevated the one brand he was personally most invested in, it was clear he had his mind made up before he invited any input.
My friend says her team felt dismissed, pandered to, and frustrated that they wasted time brainstorming and submitting ideas.
Chances are that the whole thing would have gone over much better if the leader had just started from a place of advocacy. This leader had his reasons for selecting that name, and they were valid since the brand he elevated was the most recognized brand of the three. Where he went wrong was pretending that his team had a voice in the matter, which made everyone less likely to listen when he started advocating for the name after the fact.
The Inquiry-Advocacy Matrix
While the example I shared was fairly clear-cut, the lines between inquiry and advocacy can sometimes get blurrier, which is where the matrix comes in. Imagine a 2 x 2 grid, with “advocacy” on one axis and “inquiry” on the other.
When both inquiry and advocacy are high, you might be in an engaged conversation, dialogue, or discussion with a lot of give and take. When both are low, you may be disengaged or withdrawn, or just quietly observing rather than participating. When inquiry is high and advocacy is low, you are actively seeking information, like in an interview or survey. When advocacy is high and inquiry is low, you’re in the position of giving a lecture or presentation — actively arguing for a position or sharing information in a uni-directional way.
Problems tend to arise when your communication style is a mismatch for the situation. Imagine these scenarios:
1. You start arguing for a position in a brainstorm meeting.
- Why it’s a problem: Others are busy thinking about their ideas, so they aren’t listening to yours.
- The risk: You could seem arrogant or inflexible.
2. You ask too many open-ended questions in a presentation.
- Why it’s a problem: Others are expecting you to stake a claim and make a case.
- The risk: You could come across as unprepared or wishy-washy.
3. You invite ideas from others despite the fact that your mind is already made up.
- Why it’s a problem: Others will lose trust that you’re interested in their input.
- The risk: Your team will feel less invested in the idea, since it feels imposed upon them.
4. You remain in a place of endless inquiry, always seeking input and rarely deciding.
- Why it’s a problem: Decisions have to be made at some point or nothing gets done.
- The risk: Your team will stop contributing ideas—and trusting your leadership.
Putting the Matrix Into Practice
What if you’re not exactly sure where you fall on the matrix? Here’s an exercise that will help. I want you to think about a communication situation you’re facing at work right now, and run it through the model below, circling where you fall on the scale for each item.
If your communication need falls clearly in the advocacy camp, then a presentation or a video is in order. If it falls firmly in the inquiry camp, a survey or company poll would be required. If you’re somewhere in the middle, then a small-group conversation, meeting, or discussion would be best, at least to begin with. If you have no opinion and no questions, then you don’t need to communicate anything at all (and you probably don’t need a matrix or a model to tell you that).
As you work within the matrix to target your communication style to the situation at hand, other side benefits will arise, apart from simply saying the right thing in the right way at the right time. You’ll be more likely to be understood as well as heard by those you work with and lead, you’ll establish your credibility as a thought leader or creative thinker, and you’ll help others see the value you’re adding. As Guthrie says, “The upshot is that advocacy can help you plant fast-growing seeds to get known. Inquiry can help you work with others to find the germs of good ideas, sow them and produce results.” Both are important. Use them wisely.