How Great Leaders Ask Great Questions
How well do you ask questions? From my experience, most managers don’t think about this issue. After all, you don’t usually find “the ability to ask questions” on any list of managerial competencies; nor is it an explicit part of the curriculum of business schools or executive education programs. But asking questions effectively is a major underlying part of a manager’s job — which suggests that it might be worth giving this skill a little more focus. We’ve all experienced times when we’ve failed at being good questioners, perhaps without realizing it. For example, not long ago I sat in on a meeting where a project team was reviewing its progress with a senior executive sponsor. During the presentation it was clear from his body language that the executive was uncomfortable with the direction that the team was taking. As a result, without any real questioning of the team, he deferred approval of the next steps until he could have a further discussion with the team leader. When he met with the team leader later, he ripped into him for allowing the team to go off-course. Eventually the team leader was able to explain the thinking behind the plan, convinced the executive that they would indeed achieve their objectives, and was given the go-ahead to proceed. But in the meantime the team had lost its momentum (and a week of productivity), and began to focus more on pleasing the sponsor rather than doing the project in the best way.
This is not an isolated incident. Many managers don’t know how to probe the thought process of their subordinates, colleagues and bosses — and instead make assumptions about the basis of their actions. And when those assumptions are wrong, all sorts of dysfunctional patterns can be created. In a financial services firm, for example, a major product upgrade was delayed by months because the product and IT managers had different assumptions about what was to be delivered by when, and kept blaming each other for delays. When a third party finally helped them to ask the right questions, they were able to come up with a plan that satisfied both, and quickly produced incremental revenue for the product. There are three areas where improved “questioning” can strengthen managerial effectiveness; and it might be worth considering how you can improve your skills in each one. First is the ability to ask questions about yourself. All of us fall into unproductive habits, sometimes unconsciously. Good managers, therefore, are always asking themselves and others about what they could do better or differently. Finding the right time and approach for asking these questions in a way that invites constructive and candid responses is critical. Second is the ability to ask questions about plans and projects. The examples mentioned above both fall into this category. The challenge with questioning projects is to do so in a way that not only advances the work, but that also builds relationships and helps the people involved to learn and develop. This doesn’t mean that your questions can’t be tough and direct, but the probing needs to be in the spirit of accelerating progress, illuminating unconscious assumptions and solving problems. This is in contrast to some managers who (perhaps out of their own insecurity) ask review questions either to prove that they are the smartest one in the room, or to make someone squirm. On the other hand, many of the best managers I’ve seen have an uncanny ability to engage in Socratic dialogue that helps people reach their own conclusions about what can be done to improve a plan or project, which of course leads to much more ownership and learning. Finally, practice asking questions about the organization. Although usually unspoken, managers have an obligation to always look for ways that the organization as a whole can function more effectively. To do this, they need to ask questions about practices, processes and structures: Why do we do things this way? Is there a better approach? Asking these questions in a way that does not trigger defensiveness and that is seen as constructive is an important skill for managers.