"I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And, did you learn anything? "
So said the voice of the late Earl Woods in the slightly creepy Nike ad that debuted just prior to the Masters last week.
The question, of course, was directed at his son Tiger, whose indiscretions and accompanying fall from grace have been impossible to miss (and which overshadowed all but the final moments of a golf tournament that—you may be surprised to learn—was won by someone else yesterday).
No matter what you may think of Woods on a professional or personal level—or the issues of taste involved in splicing quotes to create an ad campaign around the concept of a dead parent expressing disappointment in the actions of their adult offspring—the question is one that we could all benefit by asking ourselves and those around us more often.
It's very easy to ignore the issues of feedback and personal growth in the workplace—and especially now, when we're all trying to do more with less, all the time. As tempting as it can be to just move onto the next item on your checklist, taking the time to acknowledge each setback or piece of progress with a question similar to the one that seems to have greeted Tiger on a regular basis on his road to the top can make the difference between repeating a mistake and acknowledging and learning from it.
The beauty of such a question is its simplicity and scalability.
It can be something you ask yourself in a quiet five-minute window, or pose as an official organizational learning tool. And, just as it can be used to pick staff up and enable them to begin focusing on the future after a failure, it can also bring people back down to earth—gently—and ensure they don’t get too carried away following a success.
It's a question that can reveal a lot about potential employees too. In a world where the average interview candidate can know everything there is to know about your firm before the interview, it can be difficult to cut through the canned responses candidates offer to frame their successes and theoretical value to your company.
By following up and asking what a candidate learned from overcoming the challenge or delivering the success they're repeating to you as a pat answer, however, you stand a better chance of uncovering who they are as a person. Whether their answer reflects a moment or personal enlightenment or deeper professional understanding, you can be sure that you're getting closer to uncovering a truth than from any of the formulaic responses you're likely to get from a question that begins with "tell me about a time when…"
As noted above, Tiger Woods didn't add another of those famous green jackets to his collection yesterday.
However, by simply showing up at the place where he does his best work, and putting himself through the emotional and professional wringer, he had experiences that he'll need to process and learn from. I'd like to think that, for once, there's an element of truth behind an advert, no matter how cynically conceived, and that he'll be heading home today asking himself what he learned from the experience. And if he can do that after everything he's been through recently, what's stopping you from asking the question of yourself and those around you?
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Phil Stott is a staff writer at Vault.com in New York. Originally from Scotland, he has also lived and worked in Japan, South Korea and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in English Literature and Modern History, and a Masters in Research in Civil Engineering, both from the University of Dundee.
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