Are You Asking Questions that Empower or Disempower?

Excerpted with the permission of the author, Michael Marquardt, from Chapter Two of the Revised and Updated – “Leading with Questions”

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 purposely 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 disempowering questions:

  • Why are you behind schedule?
  • What’s the problem with this project?
  • Who isn’t keeping up?
  • Don’t you know better than that?

We end up creating that which 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. Such questions can help them realize how they are contributing to the whole. Empowering questions build positive attitudes and self-esteem; they remove blocks and open people up to unexpected possibilities while inviting discovery, creativity, and innovation.

Empowering questions help develop alignment within teams and draw out the optimum performance from individual members and the team as a whole. They create a high-energy, high-trust environment and enable people to identify, clarify, and express their wants or needs. Such questions encourage people to take risks, nurture deep relationships, and dissolve resistance to change. Empowering questions enhance your energy level as they focus on what is already working, what can become energizing and supportive, and how best to clarify and achieve common objectives. They also focus on benefits and yield responses that support movement forward toward the objectives.

Jean Halloran, HR manager for Hewlett-Packard, notes that in empowering others, the leader must resist the urge to give people advice. When people ask for help, the leader needs to ask questions so that they come up with their own answers.

So Marilee Goldberg suggests that, instead of asking disempowering questions— such as “Why are you behind schedule?” or “What’s the problem with this project?”-  Empowering Leaders ask questions such as these:

  • How do you feel about the project thus far?
  • What have you accomplished so far that you are most pleased with?
  • How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?
  • Which of these objectives do you think will be easiest to accomplish?
  • Which will be most difficult?
  • What will be the benefits for our customers if you can meet all these objectives— for our company, for our team, for you personally?
  • What key things need to happen to achieve the objective?
  • What kind of support do you need to ensure success?

Note from Bob:  Which of these two questions will you be using:  A. “How do we win?”  B.  “Why are we losing?”



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.

You can order the new “Leading with Questions” by clicking “HERE”


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