As I work with leaders to support them in their development I find myself discussing the importance of good questions a lot. When we get right down to the tactical changes that leaders need to make to be more effective, increase the capability on their team or change the culture of their organization, asking great questions is usually a part of those changes. Questions are one of the most powerful tools a leader has to inspire, develop, support and engage their team. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there is a secret to leadership but asking well thought out questions is a skill and a habit that may just come close to that silver bullet some people are searching for.
Questions cause others to think
If we enter a meeting and present, lecture, inform, or talk to our team they have two options: engage, or simply listen without actively engaging. We can watch television with the same two options. If there is no engagement, there is no learning, no development, no improvement, no change in behavior. Typically though as leaders, when we are working with our team, we are looking for these kinds of things to happen. Talking alone simply won’t get us there. Asking questions, even if they aren’t answered aloud or if they are rhetorical, forces the brain of others to engage. Even if they don’t articulate an answer, their brain can’t help but consider the question. We don’t have to think when we are talked to, we do have to think when someone puts a question on the table.
Questions allow us to respond instead of react
One of the things that effective leaders do well is respond rather than react to information, bad news or circumstances in the business or on their team. Questions give us time to suppress what might be a negative emotional reaction and consider the best response to a situation. Think about what happens when we get bad news from our team and we react in a way that doesn’t help us solve the problem or is viewed as “shooting the messenger”. We create a culture where no one wants to bring us bad news and yet we need to know both the good and the bad to lead effectively. Asking a question right up front like “tell me more about what happened” or “help me understand what you think we should do next” gives us time to engage our logical brain and think about the best response to the situation rather than ranting or simply letting our emotional brain say things that we might regret later.
Questions create accountability
Sometimes as managers and leaders we fall into the trap of repeatedly telling people what to do. There are certainly times when that needs to happen but if that becomes our default way of working we create a team of people that wait to be told what to do. Asking questions like “what’s your plan for getting better at this?” or “how do you think we can achieve the growth we want?” places the accountability on the team to achieve goals or improve results and the leader’s job becomes guiding and supporting them as they do, not telling them how to get it done. If we as leaders have all the answers, we also have all of the accountability.
Questions create credibility
I was in a meeting a while back that, as meetings sometimes can, turned into a debate about a relatively minor detail in the business. After the debate raged for a few minutes one of the leaders in the room who had been pretty quiet spoke up and said, “are we spending our time well right now?” Immediately the room fell silent for a moment and someone proposed an interim solution to the challenge they were debating and everyone agreed to move on to more important discussions. Consider the impact of a leader posing a question like this rather than some of the other leaders who were focused on having the right answer. Leaders who ask good questions and cause people to look at the bigger picture or who push us forward in some way when we are stuck are the leaders people want to work for and want to have in the room when tough challenges are being addressed.
Questions demonstrate our investment in others
One of the things that creates influence with others is our track record of investing in them. Leaders who are seen as willing to invest in their teams generally have teams that are more engaged, more effective, and more successful. They show up and bring their best self to work because they have a leader who has already invested in their future and their success. Nothing demonstrates this more than taking the time to ask questions like “what are your goals this year?”, “how can I help you achieve the things you want from this role?”, “what would you like to do better this year than you did last year?” Investment should be real, not staged or manipulative, but many leaders truly want the best for their people and they simply fail to take the time to demonstrate that by learning about their goals, their aspirations, their challenges and their opportunities. Developing the habit of asking these kinds of questions can completely change how we are perceived as leaders.
Questions are a tool, a skill, a habit that we can create for ourselves and use to be more effective at helping others succeed and helping our business accomplish all that it is capable of. If we can restrain our need to tell, and develop our need to ask we can move much closer to becoming the kind of leader that has enormous impact on the future and helps others reach more of their potential.
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