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Want the Key to Leadership Success? Just Ask!

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

When presented with a problem from team members, either individually or in team meetings, or when having a corrective coaching conversation with an employee, leaders are often tempted propose solutions or direction by themselves right away. Many leaders may mistakenly believe that, by “showing their smarts,” they are demonstrating their wisdom and leadership acumen. But, unfortunately, they may be missing out on a great opportunity to ask questions rather than give answers, which will involve their team members, allow them an opportunity to create their own solutions, and build their confidence and skills. An incisive question posed at just the right moment can be a life-changing experience for a team member and do more to motivate positive action and commitment than any other intervention you could provide.

Asking vs. Telling: Main Benefits

  • Establishing rapport: when you don't try to advocate for, impress with or impose your own ideas, but rather elicit ideas from your team members, you let them know how much you value their ideas and care about them, thus strengthening rapport and trust.

  • Better listening, deeper understanding: all too often, while you are talking, your team members may not be listening, but rather, thinking about what he/she is going to say or silently confused about how to use the information you are providing. Alternatively, when you ask questions, you encourage team members to think and are able to guide them in a positive direction.

  • Higher motivation, better follow-up: if you use questions to help team members get to the best answer, rather than suggesting the answer yourself, the answer/solution will be owned by the employees, who, consequently, will be more motivated to follow it up.

  • Better solutions and innovation: good questions make others think about new ways of doing things and can guide effective problem-analysis and problem-solving. Exploration of possibilities, discoveries, innovation, and progress start with challenging assumptions, asking searching “Why?” and “What if?” questions, and plying “What if” scenarios.

Tips for Effective Questioning

  1. Keep questions open-ended. Ask provocative questions that encourage team members to think for themselves, to explore their goals and desired outcomes, and to consider what is working and has worked in the past. Start questions with "what" or "how" rather than "do/did" or "are/were" to get more than a "yes" or "no" answer. For example, instead of asking, "Did you try [a particular solution]?" instead ask them, "What have you tried?" or "What has worked for you before in similar situations?"

  2. Don't lead. Avoid asking questions you already know the answer to or where the "right" answer is obvious to the other person. You want (and need) to know what others know, think and imagine. Asking leading or positional questions frequently is nothing more than impressing your solution onto others. Even if you may have a good idea, nothing is learned by doing this, and by asking more neutral questions, you may encourage others to come up with an even better idea.

  3. Encourage solutions. "What do you suggest we should do to get the best results?" is a great question because it engages others to give their most creative thinking and elicits ownership in the solution. (It's also an open, neutral question!) Involve others and move quickly towards finding the best solutions.

  4. After asking a question, pause in silence. Allow the team member time to think and to find the words to share their ideas and answers. Usually silence means that the other person is thinking, so fight off the discomfort with the crickets and the temptation to jump in with your thoughts. If, after a certain point, the other person still doesn’t answer, ask the question again in a different way.

  5. Encourage your team members to ask questions of you. Too often asking a question in front of their managers is a humbling experience. It need not be. The opportunities you allow your team members to ask and be comfortable in doing so reduce that humbling effect. Rather than ask, “Do you have any questions,” invite your employees think of and ask their questions by phrasing question more openly, for example, “What questions do you have about this idea/solution...?" By asking it that way, you convey to them that you want and expect them to have questions of you. Again, allow adequate time for them to think and for their questions to emerge. And, thank them for asking you!

  6. Finally, create a question culture. Ask team members to bring critical questions to meetings, and show that you value their queries. Don't be afraid to ask the “risky” questions or dismiss the "devil's advocate" in the group who may regularly ask the “tough” questions. Major change and great solutions often are the result of pushing the status quo and challenging things that have been in place for years.

Used well, effective inquiry through good questions can be one of the most high-impact tools available to leaders, and promotes better ideas, greater employee engagement and commitment, improved interpersonal relationships, and a culture of continuous learning and improvement. So, if you want to unleash the talents and wisdom of your team – just ASK!



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