Questions serve as the foundation for increasing individual, team, and organizational learning. Every question can be a potential learning opportunity.
A culture that encourages questions therefore is a culture that encourages learning.
The act of questioning actually has an impact on the human brain. To demonstrate this, take a heading in this or any book and convert it into a question . For example, consider the statement “Action learning helps us to learn.” If you simply ask yourself, “How does action learning help us to learn?” you will be surprised by how much more you will learn from that section— and how much of it you will retain.
Learning depends on curiosity and asking questions. Questions, especially challenging ones, cause us to think and to learn.
Organizations that encourage leaders at all levels to take the time to ask thoughtful and probing questions improve the odds of making good decisions.
Mark Harper of ConocoPhillips points to another benefit of a questioning culture: it helps create “a higher level of trust that dialogue and debate will occur before major decisions are made.” As a result, he says, people feel included in the process and “there is more of a commitment to execution when changes have to be implemented.”
Questions also generate alignment with a shared focus and make it more likely that you will solve the right problem. In Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, Ian Mitroff observes that individuals and organizations run into trouble because they too often solve the wrong problem. Organizational psychologists such as Block and Vaill note that the problem originally presented is rarely the most critical problem for the group to work on; often it is only a symptom, and as the group works on it, a more urgent and important problem emerges.
Change brings new ideas, new ways of doing things to the organization. In organizations without a questioning culture, change and new ideas are often rejected because they might conflict with existing, established mental models or ways of doing things, which have never been questioned. When questions are rare, those promoting new ideas have the task of confronting these existing assumptions without invoking defensiveness or anger. This is difficult to do in organizations where the prevailing culture discourages questions. Their questions, no matter how gently phrased, stand out and seem disruptive because questions are so rare.
By posing the right questions and engaging staff in the pursuit of a response, effective leaders gain more than just buy-in to the change. Effective leaders serve as the catalyst for change and give their followers the opportunity to exert some control in determining their future. Questions will enable staff to become more aware of how they contribute to the organization’s goals, and thereby generate greater commitment to those goals.
Good questions energize people. And a questioning culture can energize an entire organization.
“Asking questions is fun,” Doug Eden says. “Employees enjoy it.” Eden is president of Cargill’s Malt Americas unit. Asking questions, he says, “leads to meaningful dialogue, gets everyone involved, and actually provides me more credibility as a leader.”
Ken Blanchard remarks that too many leaders try to make people feel unimportant. The important thing about leadership is not what happens when you’re there but what happens when you are not there. Leaders who promote a questioning culture in their organizations move people from dependence to independence. Blanchard notes that great questions equip people, so that positive things happen when you are not there. Questions create a supportive, creative environment. By asking questions, leaders help people discover for themselves what is important for them in doing what is necessary for the organization.
Putting people together around a conference table doesn’t make them into a team whose members all pull together.
Sue Whitt, global head of Pharmaceutical Regulatory Operations at Abbott Labs, explained to me how she encouraged a questioning culture to bring her team together when she was at Pfizer: When I directed the integration for development operation at Pfizer, I had an integration team staffed with ten people from different segments. Staff meetings used to be very “ungrouplike.” Everyone was constantly talking over each other, debating who’s the smartest. It was difficult to get the group back to the goal of the meeting. Questions I asked began to change my group. I would ask about data. “Are you aware of how many databases need to be done by the end of the year? Would you like to prioritize? If so, on what basis , and how should we reprioritize?” At the end of each session, we asked questions such as “What worked and what went well? What could we do better?” We would then be sure to incorporate these ideas into our next session. I have continued to use this approach in my group meetings.
Questions, when asked at the right time in the right way, provide the glue that brings the group together and holds it together. Questions build strong and cohesive teams because of the many positive effects of questions on a group of people. Questions serve as models of responsiveness, helpfulness, and cooperation. An interesting phenomenon occurs as we ask questions about someone else’s problem. The questioning process causes us to become more interested in that person’s problem. And when we listen to someone respond to our question, we appreciate their efforts and their attention.
Creativity requires asking questions for which an answer is not already known. The truth is that innovation is rarely the product of pure inspiration, that “Eureka!” moment when some genius comes up with a wholly new idea. Rather, innovation happens when people see things differently. It starts with a questioning culture that helps people gain new perspective and see things differently. Innovation is generated by great questions in an environment that encourages questions.
Pentti Sydänmaanlakka, former director of human resources at Nokia, sees a questioning culture as an important foundation for innovation. “When my employees learned that I will not give answers at the beginning, but that I will first ask questions, then they learn to ask questions themselves and find solutions alone. They start questioning when they are alone.” When you encourage such questions, Sydänmaanlakka says, you “create an environment which supports innovation, creativity, and a real spirit of curiosity.”
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
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