Excerpted with the permission of the author from Chapter Two of the Revised and Updated - “Leading with Questions”
1. Greater Self-Awareness
Astute and clear understanding of personal motives is one of the most critical of all leadership skills. Reflective questioners, according to Peter Vaill, become better leaders. A questioning culture encourages reflection. When we feel free to ask questions and are open to the questions of others, it heightens our need to reflect. And as we are called on to reflect more, we become more natural at it.
People who consciously self-reflect are much more attuned to their inner feelings than those who don’t, and thus likelier to recognize how these feelings affect them. Reflection helps us to become more attuned to our values, more candid and authentic, and better able to speak openly about our emotions. We also become more aware of our limitations and strengths, and therefore have a more accurate self-image.
2. Greater Self-Confidence, Openness, and Flexibility
People who ask questions have more self-confidence, as they see the people they question show appreciation and respect for the question and the questioner. When a nonthreatening environment for questions is a daily reality, people become ever more comfortable with themselves, know their strengths better, and are more self-assured. As leaders see their peers and their staff demonstrate greater capability and responsibility in responding to questions and taking more initiative, they can be more relaxed and flexible.
In organizations that discourage questions, on the other hand, questions and those who ask them may be seen as threatening. And when questions are not responded to openly or honestly, or are actually rejected, those who ask them can feel put down and marginalized.
People who are comfortable with questions are nimble in adjusting to fluid change and limber in their thinking in the face of new data or realities.
3. Better Listening and Communication
People who are comfortable with asking and being asked questions have an increased ability to listen attentively and can more easily grasp the other person’s perspective.
“Questions have made me sit back and be a better listener,” Cargill’s Douglas Eden says. “I am now much more comfortable with other people; I can more easily take an active interest in what people are saying.
The questions themselves force leaders to listen. Because followers see the questioning leader as more empathetic, they are willing to question and listen themselves; they hear more closely and are thus more willing to support initiatives and ideas from the leader.
4. Better Conflict Management
Questioning leaders become better at managing conflict, because their solid questioning skills enable them to draw out all parties, understand the differing perspectives, and then find a common ideal that everyone can endorse.
Because it is generally easier to confront others and be up-front with questions rather than with statements, organizations that encourage a questioning culture help people discuss issues and share concerns that otherwise might be kept hidden. Questions allow you to keep your opinions or perspectives in abeyance until you sense the interests or opinions of others.
5. Greater Understanding and Skills in Organizational and Political Realities
Questioning leaders tend to have more organizational awareness than their unquestioning peers; their use of questions makes them more politically astute and better able to detect crucial networks. Questions also help leaders read and understand key power relationships. They tap into what’s happening and appreciate how people feel about issues and direction in the organization. Questioning leaders know what it takes to have greater control over their organization’s destiny.
6. Strong Commitment to Learn and Develop
Stronger Commitment to Learn and Develop Questions not only demonstrate a greater commitment to developing others but also make you more adept at cultivating others’ abilities as well as your own. Leaders who ask questions develop their emotional intelligence through questions. Questioning leaders thus improve their ability to teach, mentor, and coach.
In the process of questioning to help others learn, the leader is more likely to become a devoted learner too, someone who takes time to learn and demonstrates a love for learning, who has become more clearly aware of the importance of creating great thinkers and learners throughout the organization.
Sue Whitt of Abbott Laboratories says, “Questions have helped me learn. I loved to learn and learned a lot through questions. Questioning is a style I am comfortable with. I do not feel that I need to know everything. That’s why I hired all these talented people.
7. Stronger Leadership
Jim Collins, in his best-selling classic Good to Great, reports his discovery that leaders of great companies are both very humble and very persistent. In his description of “Level 5 leaders,” he observes that the successful leaders of the companies he studied recognized that the title of leader does not make one a source of all wisdom. Great leaders are humbled by the realization of all they do not know. They know that asking questions of a few will not give them enough data; to succeed, they must make asking questions of anyone and everyone their top priority.
Mark Thornhill, CEO of the Midwest Region of the American Red Cross, says, “Questions have had a significant impact on me. I now see that a true leader stands behind the follower ; he is someone who is accessible to and supportive of the followers. I now lead more quietly. In reading Collins’s book Good to Great, I learned that what great leaders do better than anyone else is question both internal and external customers.”
Michael J. Marquardt is the President, World Institute for Action Learning and a Professor at George Washington University. Mike is the author of 20 books and over 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations and Leading with Questions. www.wial.org