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Inquiring Leaders Want To Know: The Skill of Asking the Right Questions

One of your employees comes into your office asking for help. As their manager, what should you do? If your first instinct is to give them a solution, think again.

Although providing answers to problems is the most efficient way to get things done, the long-term costs diminish the short-term gain. By taking the expedient route, you impede your employees' development, cheat yourself out of some potentially powerful and fresh ideas, and place an undue weight on your own shoulders. By asking the right questions, you will help employees find the best solutions on their own. I am not suggesting you ask just any question but, rather, employ questions that inspire people to think in new ways, expand their vision, and enable them to contribute more to the success of your organization.

Asking the right questions is an art form. Senior managers who have cultivated this skill over time have found it a wonderful discipline, says Robert Simons, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of recently released Seven Strategy Questions. These leaders by nature question, empower, and pull in the ideas of others. However, the majority of executives struggle to use questions to advance their business objectives.

Questions packing this kind of punch are usually open-ended and are not looking for a specific answer. They are questions that set the stage for your direct reports to discover their own solutions and increase their competence, confidence, and ownership of outcomes.

The right questions create not only clarity but also agreement around issues and will empower those with whom you work. When a manager asks for a subordinate's ideas, the suggestion is that their ideas are good, perhaps even better. This creates confidence and will lead to an increase in your staff's competency, according to Michael J. Marquardt, a professor of human resources and international affairs at George Washington University and author of Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What To Ask (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

Empowering questions not only convey respect, but they also encourage that person to think and become a problem solver, delivering the short-term gain by generating a solution to the current issue and a long-term value by giving the employee tools to handle similar situations in the future. Be careful, though; dis-empowering questions will undercut the confidence of your staff and sabotage their performance. These types of questions will usually focus on failure or betray that you have an underlying agenda.

Cultivate a culture of intellectual curiosity in which the right questions are widely used to create value. Begin by letting your direct reports know that you value their queries. For example, "How do we build on that?" or "How can I help you be successful?" Let employees know when the right question leads to an innovative idea. Celebrate that victory. And don't underestimate the power of modeling this question-asking approach.

The most empowering and effective questions create value in the following ways.

  1. They create clarity: "Can you explain more about this situation?" or "What is the question I didn't ask you that you wish I had?" After all, a leader's job is to simplify and focus.

  2. They form better working relationships: Don't ask, "Did you make your sales goal?" Ask, "How have sales been going?"

  3. They help you think analytically and critically: "What are the consequences of taking this action?"

  4. They inspire employees to reflect and see situations in fresh and unconventional ways: "If I had a magic wand, what would you want me to do with it?"

  5. They encourage breakthrough ideas: "Can we do this a different way?"

  6. They challenge beliefs and assumptions: "What would you lose if you shared responsibility for that project?"

  7. They designate ownership of solutions: "You bring so much experience; what do you think would work?"

Go into your next meeting with a list of questions instead of points that you want to make. For example, one executive went in with this question in his arsenal: "What one idea and/or strategy that we are not currently implementing do you believe would best contribute to the success of our company?" The results were nothing short of amazing. New marketing strategies were born, new services were added to be provided to their customers, and even new global markets were penetrated via local partners as a result of this powerful question. Because these ideas belonged to the direct reports, the employees were committed to putting them into action.

You won't learn without asking. What if you stated the problem, "Our product is not selling"? Some may assume that the marketing strategy is flawed. Others may believe that the product itself is flawed. Questions eliminate ambiguity and create alignment around issues.

Let's face it; some questions should not be asked. Successful questions don' focus on why a person did not succeed or force subordinates into a defensive stance. These will only undercut what you are trying to accomplish. For example: "Why are you behind schedule?" "Who isn't keeping up?" Don't fall into the trap of asking leading questions that seek a specific answer, like "John is the problem, isn't he?" Questions must be pure in their sincerity. Like a scientist, keep your hypothesis to yourself. Ask the right question and wait for the answers to come back. Keep them open-ended, or your employees could feel interrogated.

As you strive to lead by asking rather than telling, remember that you are only as successful as those who report to you. By developing the skill of asking the right questions, you can help develop the next generation of leaders and problem solvers who fully access their creativity and resourcefulness. As those beneath you rise up, this not only reflects well on you, but it will enable your company to face any challenge that lies on the horizon.

You don't have to have the answer to ask a great question, but a great question will ultimately be answered!


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