Asking the Right Questions at the Right Time: A Key Role for Effective Academic Leaders

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Guest Post by Dr. Kina Mallard, President, Reinhardt University

As an academic leader, you may feel like you spend most of your time in unproductive meetings with unmotivated colleagues.  Meetings, often seen as a necessary evil, can be transformed into the most productive and motivational work chairs and deans undertake.  The secret to this transformation lies in your ability to ask the right questions at the right time.  When asking question becomes a work habit, you will find your credibility among your colleagues increases, you will gather the best information to make the best decisions, and you will expedite the decision-making process and find yourself with more time for other tasks.  In short, the skill to questioning facilitates two key roles of academic leaders: building consensus and making quality decisions.

Building Consensus
Consensus building bring people together for collaboration and ownership of decisions.  The techniques used to evoke consensus represent the best thinking of any group and generate greater commitment to outcomes.  Because the nature of most faculty is to work autonomously, they may not have the skills needed to reach consensus.  To help sharpen these skills, model for your colleagues how to work as a team and demonstrate using questions to reach agreement.  Questions serve as tools to reach consensus because they encourage others to express their opinions and help expose potential problems.

Questions encourage others to express their opinionsAsk your team questions, encourage their responses, seek their input, and you will find a fountain of ideas.  To build consensus, encourage verbal input from each team member even if input does not always come easy.

There are many reasons why faculty may choose to remain silent during a discussion.  Some feel intimidated, some may have been wounded in the past when they expressed an opinion that was not valued, while other issues may simply distract some.  Whatever the reason, it is your responsibility to draw them out and ensure their voice is heard.  To encourage others to express their opinion, the following questions may be helpful:

  • What is most important to you?

  • How do you feel about it?

  • How do you think this decision will impact others?

  • How will your department react to this decision?

  • What problems might other departments raise about this proposal?

Questions help us troubleshoot potential problems.  At a recent provost’s council meeting at my university, the dean of the school of education introduced a proposal for a new doctorate of education degree.  He spent the first ten minutes summarizing the proposal and then asked a critical question, “What concerns do you think will be raised when this reaches the floor of the faculty for a vote?”  Notice that he did not ask a general question about the proposal (i.e., “Does this sound good to you?”), but he tailored his questions to address potential problems.  A veteran of faculty curriculum meetings, he know there would be problems; what he needed to know was what those problems were so he could be prepared to address them.

Your success at consensus building will depend on you ability to anticipate and ask critical questions at critical times.  Potential problems often arise because some of the information needed for consensus is missing.  As academic leaders, we are often too close to a problem or proposal to see those missing parts.  To gain information to help you anticipate problems, ask the following questions:

  • How will veteran faculty feel about the proposal?

  • Who may feel threatened if we proceed?

  • Are we supplying enough information for people to make a wise decision?

  • Are there territory or budget ramifications we need to consider?

Not only does effective questioning build consensus and buy-in to ideas, it enables academic leaders to make quality decisions by defining the problem, listening, and processing their own biases.

Making Quality Decisions

Questions help us define the problem.  To address a problem, you must first define it.  The old adage, “The person who controls the definition of a problem controls its solution” gives wisdom to how we deal with day-to-day tasks.

At a past academic chairpersons conference, a dean attending my presentation lamented that when an issue was under discussion, she was the last one to find out the faculty were divided.  “While I’m in the room,” she said, “everyone seems in agreement.  But apparently after I leave the dissenters speak up and sometimes weeks go by before some brave soul brings it to my attention that there is a problem.”  This dean’s experience is not unusual.  Many faculty are apprehensive about questioning administrators.  Your faculty may not always be forthright with you when discussing tough issues such as curriculum revisions, school or division policies, and new initiatives.  However, as the academic team leader, it is wise to know how to draw out those concerns early in the discussion stages so you can address each one.  Your perceptions of the critical issues are not always accurate.  Questions help you discover not only the main problem, but also subtle problems that may influence your colleague’s opinions about the decisions.  To help you stay focused and understand the problem, ask the following questions:

  • Are there comments that would indicate a reevaluation of the program?

  • What does the group want to happen?

  • What doesn’t the group want to happen?

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?

  • What is the best thing that could happen?

  • Where can we find the information we need?

  • Are there other angles or approaches we have not considered?

  • Is there a historical perspective we need to hear about?

Questions put you in a position to listen.  Listening is a challenge for most academic leaders.  We assume we are supposed to have the best ideas and the right answers.  Whenever a discussion starts, most of us feel an urgency to express ourselves.  Read any book on great leaders and you will find that those who are successful agree that being an effective listener was key to their success.  Because leaders are the ones who are usually answering the questions, it takes some planning and discipline for chairs and deans to assume the question-asking role.

When we listen effectively we are not only gathering facts, we are also tuning in to feelings.  To make quality decisions we need to understand both.  The leader who makes decisions solely on data collected will be missing an important ingredient that aids quality decision-making.  To assist you in gathering both facts and feelings, consider these questions:

  • Is everybody clear on this issue before we move on?

  • Do you have other information that might help us understand this issue?

  • Who else do you think we need to include in this discussion?

  • Can you give some examples?

  • You have just said you do not think this is a good idea; will you share your reasons why?

  • Did I answer your question?

Questions help you to process your own opinions.  Asking questions can help us be true to ourselves and is essential to our growth.  Too often we remain silent and watch as new programs are implemented or policies changed, even though we feel the changes may not be in the best interest of the institution.  When we ask questions, we are forced to slow down our thinking process.  We are given time to reflect and regroup – to assess what information is missing and to plan the next question.  Asking questions can give us a place to start even if we are not totally onboard.  The worst regret is “I wish I had asked. . .”  To hold yourself accountable and maintain integrity, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I satisfied with this program or approach?

  • How do I feel about it?

  • What is my purpose?

  • What assumptions am I making?

  • Is this the best decision for me and/or for my team?

  • Did I agree (or disagree) because I thought it would please others?

  • Do I have a hidden agenda?

  • What is the best way to approach this issue?

  • Could I have said that differently?

  • Should I write a letter to my dean about how I feel?

Conclusion
The word “question” derives from the word “quest,” which is a search or pursuit undertaken to find or obtain something.  Questions, formed correctly, bring forth missing or hidden information and feelings.  Effective questioning helps chairs and deans develop a deep understanding of the collective yearnings of their faculty.  It is the expression of these yearnings that are necessary in building consensus, making quality decisions, producing motivated faculty, and leading productive meetings.

Source: The Department Chair, Winter 2002, Vol. 12, No. 3
Reprinted with permissions from Anker Publishing Co., 176 Ballville Rd., P.O. Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740
www.ankerpub.com

Kina-S-Mallard-headshotDr. Kina Mallard is President of Reinhardt University in Waleska, GA. She can be reached at ksm@reinhardt.edu

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