Good leaders could learn a thing or two from a fictional TV homicide detective named Lt. Columbo.
A true staple, the program ran on American network television for more than 30 years. In every episode, the show’s writers include an interview technique which has become Columbo’s trademark. As you might recall, the disheveled and clumsy Columbo is highly deferential to suspects. Combined with absentmindedness’, he lulls criminals into a false sense of security. Viewers have come to know the pattern well. Columbo asks a suspect a series of questions that doesn’t seem to add up to much. At the conclusion of his interview, he steps toward the door and, just before leaving, turns away and says, “One more thing,” or “There’s something I forgot to ask.” He then asks the key question that reveals everything he really wants to know.
This “false exit” allows Columbo to pose the most significant question as an aside, as if it is a minor item that has slipped his mind. This makes the question appear as an after-thought and less important, thereby lowering the suspicions of the suspect and encouraging them to believe the answer they provide will also be of little consequence. Of course, the question and the answer always prove to be critically important to solving the case.
Making less of a critical question is a spectacular way of getting a more unfiltered and candid answer. Leaders who ask important questions more casually typically learn more. Those on the receiving end of an afterthought or casual question will think less critically about their answer and often let their guard down. All leaders face the challenge of learning the truth. Too many answers they hear are filtered or edited in some way. That is the effect of status in leader-subordinate relationships. Becoming more like Columbo and asking questions that appear less important, almost forgotten, is one way to learn more about what others really think. No rumpled trench coat required.