I’ve read that you should never ask a question for which you don’t already know the answer. Oh wait, maybe I read that in a John Grisham novel. While that may be true for an attorney who’s cross-examining a witness, in leadership, it is quite the opposite.
Many business professionals have the misconception that the leader is supposed to have all the answers. As a new leader, I certainly bought into that philosophy. I worked so hard, because I never wanted to admit to team members that I didn’t have an answer to one of their questions. I put in overtime, trying to overcompensate for my shortcomings. It may have taken me a while to get it, but I realize that the best leaders don’t have all the answers.
The greatest leaders ask the best questions.
Telling, commanding, ordering will neither engage nor empower your team members. Asking for their input? Now that’s where you’ll really learn something! Henry David Thoreau said,
The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.
Asking great questions is a powerful technique for gleaning more information about a problem or situation, for seeking feedback on your performance as a leader, and for getting input and identifying new opportunities to serve your customers.
While working with leadership teams to help them to all start “rowing and growing” in the same direction, asking questions is a big part of what I do. I liken it to when you go to a concert and the performer tosses a beach ball out into the crowd and then watches the crowd volley it back and forth. I ask a question of the team – often a tough and sometimes uncomfortable question, step out of their way, and let them volley it back and forth. In-depth information, thoughts, and feelings are shared, problems are solved, turf wars are abandoned, and departmental silos are torn down. All because I asked a few carefully crafted questions.
Notice I said carefully crafted questions. You only get answers to the questions you ask, so learn how to ask powerful questions!
Since this is something I’m always working on, I thought that you might like to share in the benefits of my research. Here I’ve compiled a list of
Adapt these questions to fit your particular situation. The one thing they all have in common is that none of these can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and, in fact, none can be answered with a one-word response. That is by design. By crafting and asking open-ended questions, you will elicit more information and gain greater insight from your team member.
Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most important facet of asking great questions. I say this with deepest affection, but please, for the love of God, Shut up and listen to their responses! This can be the toughest part. Even though I am a big talker, I finally learned there’s a time to talk and a time to zip my lip. I encourage you to do the same. (Too bad I didn’t learn that until after I was out of school!) But, it’s a skill worth practicing.
Make room for silence. Sometimes people are quiet because they are taking time to formulate their answer(s). Sometimes people are quiet because they’re hoping you’ll jump in and save them from having to answer. Don’t do it. Let there be silence and patiently wait for the other person to answer.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Dare I presume to paraphrase Voltaire? I dare. I say,
Judge a leader by her questions rather than by her answers.
Dare to ask questions for which you don’t already know the answers. Develop your ability to craft questions that will elicit information, input, and insight. It is a power-full tool to have in your toolbox.
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