Bosses give answers; leaders ask questions. Many people, when placed in a position of leadership, view it as either their privilege or their responsibility to provide answers. This might be in the form of directing those around them, or their arrogance may convince them that they are the fount of all truth. They may also view providing answers as expedient.
The problem with being the largest or only voice in the room is that the people around us shrink to their most basic selves. Team members feel less connected, less important, less engaged, and less satisfied in their role, thus the organization suffers through lower performance.
Rather than providing all the answers, a better leadership practice is to ask questions. Whenever possible, tell less and ask more. The questions that we ask can and should cover a wide range of topics. They might be technical or functional questions, such as “How does that work?” or “Are there other ways of doing this that we should consider?” They might be business process questions, such as “What can the organization do to better support you?” or “What are some ways that we could be more efficient?” They might be personal questions, such as “What skills would you like to be developing?” or even “What do you need from me today?” Questions most often should be open-ended, requiring more than a single-word response. The best questions necessitate some thought to answer and open the door to follow-up questions or discussion.
“Poor leaders rarely ask questions of themselves or others. Good leaders, on the other hand, ask many questions. Great leaders ask the great questions.” – Michael Marquardt
Asking questions develops people, benefits the organization, and builds leadership relationships. Take a look at some of the results of the practice of asking powerful questions:
- Empowers people – Sometimes we are faced with the same flawed thinking from team members in the form of “You’re the boss; just tell us what to do.” In these situations, people are disempowered. It could be a situation where they work with a problem every day and haven’t put much thought into solutions. By asking questions, people are empowered. If we ask questions well, with a genuine interest in hearing their thoughts, we might hear some great input.
- Reduces hierarchical differences – Too often the hierarchy is allowed to interfere with communications, a psychological barrier for people at a lower level in the organization to voice opinions or add value to a discussion. Asking questions may be a necessity in order to promote the flow of information. The process of asking team members for input tends to put us on more equal ground.
- Bridges relational gap – Leadership is built upon a relationship. Asking questions allows leaders a route to understanding individuals, demonstrating respect, and building those relationships.
- Prompts inquisitiveness and innovation – Asking questions that help people think deeper opens up new thoughts and can prompt more logical and analytical responses. By doing so, people are more likely to question assumptions and more deeply examine their thoughts, often leading to innovative solutions.
- Builds engagement – People are more eager to buy into ideas in which they have participated or contributed. Questions draw out thoughts that become part of the solution and contributors to the solution are more easily engaged in implementation.
- Develops competence – One of a leader’s responsibilities is the development of team members. Asking questions expresses confidence, helps to develop thought processes, and encourages team members to develop their own expertise.
- Networks intelligence – Asking questions in a team setting allows for the possibility of the team building one idea upon another. This promotes collaboration within the team and builds interrelationships that strengthen it. The exchange of ideas will lead to more optimal solutions.
- Grow more informed – Of course, one of the values of asking questions is getting answers. The process of questions allows the leader to gather information from a range of sources. Along the way, the leader also can learn a great deal about each team member.
As the leader it is your responsibility to somewhat guide the ensuing discussion, to weigh the value of the answers, to see that each team member is heard, and to prevent the quashing or domination by certain team members. The leader is responsible for managing the decision process, whether it be consensus development or executive privilege, but the future of the organization is largely built upon the ability of leadership to ask powerful questions.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.