Gone are the days when “leader” generally meant a guy in a grey suit with a briefcase. These days a leader might be a jeans and tennis shoe wearing 20...
“The quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives.” – Tony Robbins
As leaders, it’s easy to feel like part of our job is to have the right answers, when it’s probably more important to have the right questions. Even though “Question Asking 101” won’t be found on the curriculum list of any business school or executive education program, knowing how to ask the right questions at the right time, and in the right way is one of the most important skills a leader can have.
I once heard someone say that “an excellent question is worth more than a thousand answers.” I tend to agree. There have been many situations in my life when a question helped to point my mind toward a solution that I might not have come to otherwise. In a world that is jam packed with opinions packaged as facts, knowing the right question to ask can be transformative and liberating. In a very real sense, questions are often the directions that lead us to the truth.
And yet, asking great questions is a skill that few people possess. More often than not, we make assumptions about the actions of others because we don’t know how to probe the thought processes behind the actions. When those assumptions are wrong, it can set off a chain reaction of dysfunctional patterns and missteps, all of which could have been avoided if we’d just gotten to the truth in the first place.
I think there are three areas where improving our ability to question can make us better leaders: Questions about ourselves, questions about plans and projects, and questions about the entire organization. Let’s break down each one…
The skill of asking yourself questions about yourself.
In almost every situation, our perspective is an important influencing factor. This is true on a global scale (our overarching world view) and on a micro level (our attitude about the person right in front of us). That’s why it’s important to constantly ask ourselves questions that help us understand what perspective we are bringing to the table. Whether an event is perceived as positive or negative, and whether it’s framed as a destructive event or a growth opportunity, is largely based on our own perceptions. The right questions can help us both understand those perceptions and choose them wisely.
The skill of asking great questions about plans and projects.
Unfortunately, leaders and managers sometimes have a way of asking questions about a project that puts people on the defensive, making them feel as if they need to defend plans and decisions rather than explain the reasoning behind them. This not only interferes with reaching a common understanding, but does little to identify weak areas and the solutions that will strengthen them.
The challenge with questioning projects is to do so in a way that not only advances the project goals, but that also opens honest communication that helps everyone learn and develop. This doesn’t mean dancing around issues. Often the best questions are tough and direct. As with most things, it’s our attitude and intention that’s important here. Our questions must be in the spirit of accelerating progress, revealing assumptions, and solving problems.
The skill of asking questions about the organization.
As leaders, we have an obligation to constantly evaluate the way things are being done within our entire organization and look for ways in which changes can bring about greater efficiency and effectiveness. We must be willing to ask questions about practices, processes, and structures – especially those practices, processes, and structures that have been in place for a long time.
Helpful questions include: Why do we do things this way? Is there a better approach? As with the questions we ask our team, it’s important that we ask these questions in a way that does not trigger the kind of defensiveness that makes others want to hold onto the status quo and resist even the consideration of change.
All of this makes me think about how we probably don’t give enough thought to how we frame our questions. So, I have a few questions for you. From your own experience, what are some good and bad examples of how to ask questions? How do you assess whether you are asking the right questions of yourself and others?