Excerpted from Chapter 5, “The Art of Asking Questions”
As Marilee Adams notes, our mindset frames how we see the world. It simultaneously programs what we believe to be our personal limitations and what we see as our possibilities. Mindsets define the parameters of our actions and interactions and affect, either explicitly or implicitly, outcomes in any area of focus. They are a determinant in the types of questions we ask ourselves and others. In addition, our individual mindset determines how we observe, understand, and accept ourselves and others.
Adams refers to two types of mindsets that may reside in the questioner:
In the Learner Mindset, the questioner seeks to be responsive to life’s circumstances. When we are focused on learning, we seek to understand the past as a way of guiding our actions in the future. Leaders with the learning mindset tend to be optimistic and presuppose new possibilities, a hopeful future, and sufficient resources. They exude optimism, possibilities, and hope.
The Judger Mindset, on the other hand, is reactive. Leaders with the judging mindset tend to focus on the past, not as a means of learning but to apportion praise or, more likely, blame. When our focus is on judging, we worry more about fixing responsibility for problems than on working with others to find solutions. Judging questions result in win–lose encounters, as they all too often operate in an attack‐or‐defend paradigm. Leaders with the judging mentality tend to believe they know the answers already anyway.
Leaders who focus on learning rather than judging can be flexible and relate to others in a win–win manner that facilitates the search for creative solutions. Such leaders employ relationships that operate in a collaborative and innovative mode. A leader with the learner mindset can be more open to new possibilities than one who prefers to judge, and less attached to personal opinions and the need to be right.
“It is important to be benign when asking questions,” says Mike Coleman, past president of Alcoa’s Rigid Packaging business unit in Knoxville, Tennessee. “Seek the cause without being accusatory. I firmly believe that the strength of questions is a tried‐and‐true way to find root causes. I take care in how I ask questions. I do not demonstrate with my body language that my mind is made up, that a person is being attacked or getting sabotaged. If I act in this way, I do not get the full or complete answer; the person worries more about getting into trouble or being foolish than about listening to and responding to my questions.”
According to Marilee Adams, the learning mindset exemplified by Mike Coleman leads to much greater effectiveness, breakthroughs, and transformations. Although it may sometimes be more difficult and challenging to operate with a learner mindset, it is much more rewarding for everyone involved. Learning mindsets lead to thinking objectively, creating solutions, and relating in a win–win way. Leaders with learner mindsets ask genuine questions, that is, questions to which they don’t already know the answers. Consider another comment by Mike Coleman: “I believe that leaders often misuse questions. I use questions to gain knowledge or to teach. I don’t ask questions that I already know the answers to or to embarrass someone—this sabotages the whole purpose of questions.”
A leader who is habitually judgmental, on the other hand, puts employees on the defensive because they live in constant fear of being judged and found wanting. A judging attitude causes employees to hide their mistakes, defend their behavior, and refuse to ask for help or admit their weaknesses or vulnerabilities. This can lead to a vicious spiral.
Exhibit 5.1 summarizes these two divergent mindsets as well as divergent relationships, which in turn result in totally different questions and questioning styles on the part of the leader.
Here are some examples of questions asked from the Learning Mindset, according to Adams:
- What’s good or useful about this?
- What possibilities does this open up?
- What can we do about this?
- How can we stay on track?
- What can we learn from this?
For contrast, here are some examples of Judging Questions:
- Why is this a failure?
- What’s wrong with you?
- Whose fault is it?
- Why can’t you get it right?
By consciously adopting a learning mindset, we can become more open to new possibilities and ask questions more effectively. When those around us sense that we do have a learning attitude, that we are eager for new information and new insights, they will be more open and thoughtful in answering our questions. The flow of information and ideas will open up, and problem solving, teamwork, and innovation will be enhanced.