Why Asking Good Questions Can Help You Be a Better Leader

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One of my first challenges as a manager was when I was placed in charge of a department whose work was completely different from my subject expertise. I panicked because I felt that I would be perceived as a fraud by the staff and I also knew that there was no way that I could become that subject matter expert in the short period of time that I had before assuming responsibility for them and their work. I madly surrounded myself with manuals, books, and articles, trying to absorb as much as I could, but to little avail. Then I started to talk to people, and it slowly dawned on me that I was learning by asking questions and listening. The more I listened, the better my questions became and the more I learned. Questions also helped me clarify my own thinking on projects, workflow, and strategies for my new unit.

How well do you ask questions? From my experience, most managers and leaders don't think about this issue very often. The "ability to ask questions" doesn't usually show up on any list of managerial competencies or job description requirements. However, asking questions effectively is a major component of any manager or leader's job, and asking good questions often distinguishes outstanding leaders and managers from average ones (or worse, poor ones).

Why Is Asking Questions Critical to a Leader's Success?

We've all experienced times when we've not succeeded at being good questioners, perhaps without even realizing it. Have you had this experience? You're sitting in a meeting where a project team was reviewing its progress with a senior executive. During the presentation, it's clear from the executive's body language that she's uncomfortable and increasingly impatient with the direction the team is taking. However, without any real questioning of the team, the meeting ended without approval of the next steps. The executive wants further discussion with the team leader. When she meets with the team leader, she chastises him for allowing the team to go off-course. Eventually, the team leader explains the thinking behind the plan, convinces the executive that they are indeed on target to achieve their objectives, and gets the go ahead to proceed. Yet, in the meantime, the team has lost its momentum (and a week of productivity) and has begun to focus more on pleasing the boss rather than doing the project in the best way.

This is not a unique scenario. Many managers and leaders don't know how to probe the thought process of their colleagues and bosses and instead make assumptions about the basis of their actions. When those assumptions are wrong, all sorts of dysfunction can result. Who hasn't heard the following story? A a major product upgrade has been delayed by months because the product and IT managers have different assumptions about what is to be delivered by when, and both sides keep blaming each other for the delays. When a third party finally intervenes and helps them ask the right questions, they are able to come up with a plan that satisfies both sides and move ahead with the implementation.

Improved "questioning" can strengthen managerial effectiveness. Most of us never think about how to frame our questions. Giving this process some explicit thought might not only make you a better manager and leader—it might also help others improve their inquiry skills.

Here's why asking questions is important:

  • It helps you uncover the challenges you're facing and generate better solutions to solve those problems. We're all spending too much time and energy solving the first iteration of a challenge with the first idea we have. That's both limiting and counterproductive.
  • It's how you increase the capacity and potential in those you lead. A good question can create an "aha" moment, which can then lead to innovation and growth.
  • It keeps you in learning mode rather than judgment mode. If you're asking a question, you're not rushing in to provide the answer, give the solution, or take on the challenge. It's a good self-management tool to keep you focused on the bigger picture, and as a leader/manager, that's your responsibility to your team and to the organization.

Tips for Asking Good Questions

Be curious. Leaders and managers who do all the talking are tone deaf to the needs of others. Unfortunately, some of these types of leaders feel that being the first and last person to speak is a sign of strength. In reality, though, it's the exact opposite. Such an attitude cuts off information at its source, from the very people—staff, colleagues, customers—you should trust the most. Being curious is essential to asking good questions. Stay curious a little longer, and take advice giving and action taking a bit more slowly. Getting to a solution quickly is not always the best route to take—easy to say, hard to do, but with practice you can improve this skill.

Be open-ended. Leaders and managers should ask questions that get people to describe not simply what happened, but also what they were thinking. Open-ended questions prevent you from making judgments based on assumptions, and can elicit some unexpected answers that can lead to better results. Constructing questions that use what, how, and why encourages dialogue. Keeping the conversation open and flowing is critical to finding better solutions. It also makes you a better leader and manager.

Be engaged. When you ask questions, show that you care. Demonstrate that you are interested with positive facial expressions and engaged body language. This sets up further conversation and encourages the person to share information that could be important. For example, if you are interviewing a job candidate, you want to encourage him to talk about not only his accomplishments but also his setbacks and how he has dealt with them. An interested interviewer can often get someone to talk in depth about rebounding from failure. However, people will only open up if you actively show interest and listen attentively.

Dig deeper. So often leaders and managers make the mistake of assuming that everything is going okay if they are not hearing bad news. Big mistake. It may mean staff are afraid to share anything but good news, even if it means stonewalling. So when information surfaces in your conversations and meetings, dig for details without straying into blaming. Focusing on learning rather than judging when asking questions will help you see the entire picture. Remember, problems on your team are, first and foremost, your problems.

Asking good questions, and doing so in a spirit of honest information gathering and collaboration, is good practice for leaders and managers. It cultivates an environment where staff feel comfortable discussing issues that affect both their performance and that of the team. That, in turn, creates a foundation for deepening levels of trust, increasing morale and innovation, and enhancing productivity.

Warren Berger's book, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, contains a quote I like a lot: "A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change." A good question is ambitious (challenging) and actionable (doable). It has the potential to shift our perceptions from what we think we know or to continue with the way things have always been. Successful leaders and managers understand the power of inquiry to find real answers to solve problems and to lay the groundwork for innovative solutions. Why not give it a try?

Joan F. Cheverie is Director of Professional Development for EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.