Leadership Tools

Why good leaders ask more and better questions

 

In today’s world, leaders no longer know the answers to the challenges they face. What is more, sometimes they don’t even know which challenge they should be focusing on (let alone how to solve it). How can asking questions help us to navigate these complex times?

 

Take a moment to think of a good leader, someone you admire for their leadership. Which attributes would you use to describe him or her?

Looking at the attributes you came up with – how many are “spotlight” characteristics, such as charisma, inspirational leadership, being a motivational speaker, being the first to take action, etc.? And how many of the attributes more subtle, unimposing, maybe even invisible? Such as being a good listener, asking good questions, doing unpopular tasks to clear the way for his or her followers?

In our VUCA world (VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), we as leaders no longer know the answers to the challenges we face. What is more, sometimes we don’t even know which challenge we should be focusing on (let alone how to solve it). Since we know neither the challenges nor the answers, we live in a cloud of somewhat uncomfortable uncertainty. And how do you navigate uncertainty?

Asking questions is one of the most powerful (and highly underused) leadership tools.  The more volatile, the more uncertain, the more complex our environment, the more important it is to focus on asking questions. Part of this involves trusting that the people around you, the crowd, have more answers than you do.

You can think of a good question as a torch; it sheds light on a subject. Sometimes it can reveal the best answer, and other times it kickstarts a searching process. This searching process will continue to brood in the back of your mind, until you find a satisfactory answer. So even if you don’t get an adequate answer right away, you can take heart that the search process has begun.

 

How do you ask good questions?

  • First and foremost, in order to be able to ask good questions you need to challenge your attitude towards “not knowing” – seeing it as an opportunity, as an asset, and not as a failure. If you ask, you tap into curiosity, and into potential. And this does NOT undermine your leadership qualities, it actually strengthens them.
  • Then, you need to break the habit of making assumptions. And instead, start to ask questions. Many leaders mention their uncertainty about how much they should get involved in the daily business, about whether or not they should share more of their knowledge. However, they are usually taken by surprise at the suggestion: “ask your team”. It doesn’t occur to them that asking is an option – in fact, it’s the best option.
  • Be aware that questions always carry a presupposition. If I ask “why didn’t you finish this by today?” the presupposition is that you should have finished it (and the implicit message is that I am not pleased about this). If, however, I ask “what do you need from me in order to be able to finish this today?” I am presupposing that you will still finish it, and that I can be of support. Also, notice how the emotional tone changes, just because I choose a different question. The more aware you become of the presuppositions inherent in the question, the better questions you will ask.
  • After you have asked a question: stop and listen. That is probably the hardest part. Do not jump to conclusions, or interrupt with your own ideas. Take a deep breath and listen carefully. You might be surprised at what you hear.

Asking good question is something that takes time. It’s like building a new muscle, the asking-questions muscle. The more you do it, and the more you become aware of your patterns, the better you will get at it. We have found that there are a few questions that work very well in different settings; we call them transformative questions. If used in the right setting and at the right time, they will give you a lot of insights.

  1. What is on your mind? (A great informal conversation starter for both at work and at home).
  2. I wonder… (Opens the discussion on any subject without being intrusive).
  3. And what else? (My favourite question! It can be asked following any other question, and it often brings out the true heart of the issue that you have been trying to get to).
  4. How can I be of support? (Note the implicit presupposition).

 

So if I may, I would love to encourage you to have a go at asking more (and stating less). Try different questions at different times, and see how others react. I am pretty sure that this will not only change the way you lead, but also the way you perceive life.

And by the way: did you notice how many questions we asked in this article? What did you think about being asked so many questions? Please let me know in the comments.

 

 

Photo by Camilo Goes on Unsplash