All this week we are celebrating the 11th Anniversary of LeadingWithQuestions.com by sharing “Excerpts” from the just released 3rd Edition of “Leading With Questions.”
Questions can be very powerful in focusing attention. When leaders ask questions, they send constituents on mental journeys—quests—in search of answers. These journeys can be positive and productive, inspiring creative problem solving, new insights, and fresh perspective. Unfortunately, our questions can also send people on journeys that are negative and unproductive, provoking defensiveness and self-doubt.
One of the reasons that questions cause trouble is that we often ask the wrong questions, that is, questions that disempower others. Questions that disempower focus on the reasons why the person did not or cannot succeed. Such questions result in a defensive or reactive mode, immediately casting the blame on the other person. (Sometimes leaders do this to escape any blame or responsibility themselves.) Poor questions drain energy from the individual and cause reaction rather than creation. Here are some examples of such questions:
We end up creating that what we focus on. By asking disempowering questions, the leader closes the gateway to identifying paths to success. Such questions prevent people from having the opportunity to clarify misunderstandings or achieve goals. What’s wrong questions threaten self-esteem and thereby cause people to get mired in their problems. And, once in this defensive mode, people are more likely to see themselves as part of the problem rather than as the source of possible solutions.
Empowering questions, on the other hand, get people to think and allow them to discover their own answers, thus developing self-responsibility and transference of ownership for the results.
Captain David Marquet, when he was the captain of the USS Santa Fe, one of the U.S.’s nuclear submarines, noted that leaders should avoid asking questions where people will have to respond negatively; e.g., “Have you completed the project yet?” for which the response would be: “Well, no but we’re almost done.” Instead, Marquet recommend we ask a question that they can respond positively to. “For example, “Tell me how the project is going.” This is guaranteed not to put them in a bad position because they can talk about what progress they’ve made. That will make them feel good about what they are accomplishing. As he puts it, let them say yes!
Instead of asking the disempowering questions such as “Why are you behind schedule?” or “What’s the problem with this project?” Marilee Goldberg suggests that leaders ask questions such as these:
As Tom Ziglar, the author of numerous books on leadership, astutely observes: “The right question means everything because it leads you to the right answer. Life is too short to ask the wrong questions.”
Mark Harper, president of wholesale marketing for ConocoPhillips Petroleum, shared some of his favorite questions with me:
Take a careful look at these two questions: What should we do to fix this? What might we do to fix this? What is the difference? Yes, should in the first sentence has been replaced by might in the second sentence. When you ask your team, “What should we do to fix this?”, might they feel that they must come up with the right answer before they speak? But if you ask your team “What might we do to fix this?”; might they be much more comfortable simply sharing possible fixes?
What to Ask: Instead of:
What might you do? What will you do?
Who might know? Who will know?
What outcome might you pursue? What outcome will you pursue
Why might that be? Why is that?
Where might you look? Where should you look?
The questioning power of “might” sets people free to verbalize multiple possibilities!
Open-ended questions should begin with words such as “why” and “how” or phrases such as “What do you think about . . .” Open-ended questions can help people think analytically and critically. Ultimately, a good open-ended question should stir discussion and debate. Useful phrases to use with open-ended questions include:
What do you think about . . .?
Could you say more about . . .?
What possibilities come to mind? What might happen if you . . .?
What do you think you will lose if you give up [the point under discussion]?
What have you tried before?
What do you want to do next?
Some examples of great open-ended questions that could produce rich responses:
Bobb Biehl, Executive Mentor and Founder of Masterplanning Group International. has worked one-to-one with over 5,000 Executives. Here are 7 of Bobb’s favorite questions:
Closed questions call for a specific answer, either yes or no, or call for the respondent to select an answer from a limited range of choices. Closed questions often begin with what, when, or how many, or ask the respondent to agree or disagree with a statement. Here are some examples of closed questions:
As noted, open-ended questions tend to explore possibilities, feelings, and reasons why. In contrast, closed questions tend to focus on facts: what, when, where. Because they call for specific responses, closed questions also tend to be quick and easy to answer.
Closed questions are useful at the beginning and end of conversations. As you start a conversation, asking a simple closed question it makes it easy for people to answer and doesn’t force them to reveal too much about themselves. For example, you might begin a conversation by asking, “Is this a good time for us to talk?” At the end of a conversation, closed questions can help you clarify or seek further understanding of the results of the discussion and reach closure on a decision or course of action. Salespeople often use closed questions when they move in to close the sale: “If I can deliver this tomorrow, will you sign for it now?”
Why questions are perhaps the most important types of open-ended questions for leaders to ask as these questions force everyone to go into deeper layers of cause and effect, and of purposes and assumptions. Such questions are necessary to get under the surface to places where you need to go in order to solve the problem. Although why questions may be difficult or uncomfortable for both the leader and the person questioned, they are essential for understanding the deep causes of the situation and they generate deep learning for the person receiving the question.
Although why questions are very powerful and serve many purposes, there are occasions when “why” can be felt as being rooted in judgement and thereby create defensiveness in the other person. The person being questioned may hit the red panic button and ask themselves, “What did I do wrong?” or “How can I prove that I’m worthy?” In these occasions, a better question might be a “how” or “what” question. So, instead of why, ask “How did you come to that decision” or “What caused you to choose that option?”
Note, however, that when asking why of a third party about what someone did does not create defensiveness on the part of that person. Or using why when you are asking about a particular situation that the person being questioned was not part of will not generate defensiveness.
At Toyota, employees are taught to think why consecutively five times. This is an adaptation of cause-and-effect thinking. If employees think why and find a cause, they try to ask themselves why again. They continue five times. Through these five whys, they can break down causes into a very specific level. This five-times-why approach is very useful for solving problems.
DuPont Chairman Chad Holliday echoes Toyota’s approach. “I believe that one has to ask the why question three times to get to the core why,” he told me. “Why questions have the most power. Most of the time people answer with a surface response to the first why question. For example, safety is very important to us and we believe that most if not all injuries can be prevented. Someone’s finger was cut in a machine. Why? —Because the employee put his finger in machine. Why? —Because the machine was not functioning. Why? —Because maintenance had not been scheduled.”
FYI, instead of personally receiving any royalties from the sales of the 3rd Edition – I have designated all my royalties to go towards Cru’s Leadership Development Programs that I am a part of.
All this week we are Celebrating the 11th Anniversary as we share “Excerpts” from the 3rd Edition of “Leading With Questions!”
Click HERE to read Monday’s Post: “Would you like to hear the Story that lead to my co-authoring the 3rd Edition?”
Click HERE to read Tuesday’s Post: “Introduction to the Third Edition”
Click HERE to read Wednesday’s Post: “A Powerful But Underused Leadership Tool”
Click HERE to read Thursday’s Post: “Benefits of a Question Culture”
Today: “Asking the Right Questions.”
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