Leaders, Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Guest Post by Tanveer Naseer

In my piece “How to Recapture the Art of Asking Questions”, I looked at the issue of how we’ve stopped asking questions and what steps businesses can take to renew that sense of inquisitiveness within their workforce. Some of my readers very astutely pointed out in the comments section of that piece how the wording of our questions can also have a tangible impact on what kind of information, insights or interactions we have with those we’re querying. In this piece, I want to discuss this very point by again going back to how we learn as children.

As a primary school teacher, my sister attends a number of conferences to find out the latest approaches to educating children based on recent studies looking at how we learn. She told me about a recent training session where one presenter discussed how the kind of question teachers ask influences how students process information to provide an answer. In the session, the speaker pointed out how asking a child “Is this ball blue?” leads the child to view the answer as being either a “yes” or “no”. On the other hand, if the child is asked “What colour is the ball?”, the teacher will not only find out if the child understands the concept of colours, but also the context under which they answer the question.

Similarly, the kind of questions a leader asks their employees will also affect the kind of responses or information they provide. As such, instead of simply asking questions that provide direct answers, leaders and managers should also ask questions that allow their employees to share with them their understanding of the problem in the context of how they see the issue. In asking the right questions, leaders are not interested in simply affirming what they know. Rather, the goal is to expose issues they may not be not aware of, issues that those in the front lines see happening, but don’t bring up because no one’s bothered to ask them.

So, in addition to fostering an environment where your employees feel free to ask questions, what can leaders do to make sure they ask the right questions to their team? Here are some ideas on where to begin.

1. Start asking more open-ended questions

It’s understandable that managers and other business leaders often rely on asking closed-ended questions in order to obtain specific details or other information they’re looking to their team to provide. After all, with so many projects and individuals to manage, ‘sticking to the essentials’ can be very effective in helping to get the work done. And yet, in relying only on asking questions that provide the answers you’re looking for, you can miss out on some valuable information that can prove to be of benefit for your company.

Consider the following example – a manager walks over to one of his employees to find out about one of their customer’s orders. The manager asks the employee “Was the customer happy with their order?” to which the employee replies “Yes”. However, if the manager had thought to ask instead “What did the customer say about their order?”, he would have found out that the customer was not only happy with their purchase, but that they also appreciated the follow-up call the employee made to see if the customer had any questions about their product. This piece of information would tell the manager that they should make sure to keep offering this service as it’s something of value to their customer base.

Of course, leaders can’t always ask open-ended questions as that would be a rather costly effort in terms of time and productivity. But using a healthy balance of these two types of questions will make sure that insights like the one in the example above are not overlooked, information that can improve a company’s ability to stand out from their competition.

2. Use observations of your employees to guide what you ask

In addition to balancing between asking open and closed-end questions, it’s equally important to make sure you vary the kinds of questions you ask. If we look at how our inquisitive behaviour changes as we go through primary school, one trait that becomes noticeable is how the emphasis goes from asking diverse questions to anticipating what questions the teacher is interested in asking.

The same situation can be seen in many businesses where employees come to expect being asked certain questions and as such, they focus on providing only the information they know their leaders are looking for and nothing else. And yet, if leaders start asking questions based on what they are observing around them, they will not only gain unexpected insights and information about their organization, but their understanding of the issues facing their business will change as they are no longer restricting themselves to their interpretation of what’s important or what matters.

Caught between the frenzied pace and enormous distractions found in today’s workplace, it’s easy for leaders and managers to dismiss the importance of contemplating the questions they ask to those under their stewardship. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we get annoyed with children asking us so many questions – being in the workplace, we’ve become accustomed to focusing on ‘just getting things done’ that we lost sight of the value of taking a few moments to ask questions in order to gain a better understanding or new insights about what we see around us.

Making time to not only ask questions, but understand how to ask the right ones, should be a part of every leadership toolkit if leaders are to be effective in their roles of ascertaining if their business is taking the right approach, or whether there might be untapped opportunities that their company should explore.

What other steps do you think leaders can take to make sure they’re asking the right questions?


Tanveer Naseer


Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with managers and executives to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development.

His first book, “Leadership Vertigo” is slated for release in September 2014. You can read more of his writings on leadership and workplace interactions on his blog at TanveerNaseer.com  You can also follow him on Twitter – @TanveerNaseer


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