ABCs for Managers who Lead – Q is for Question

Q is for Question
Photo credit: MSH Staff
     Photo credit: Todd Shapera

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

Many people in leadership roles believe that the reason they are in this position is because they are “experts.” This means that they have to “prove themselves” every day by having all the answers to all of the questions posed by their staff and have all of the solutions to all of the problems that arise in their department. It often shakes their confidence when they see that one of their staff members knows more than they do or has a solution to a problem that they didn’t think of. This is exhausting and can make managers stressed, defensive and angry.

The secret is that they don’t need to know everything. What they do need (what all of us need) is good questions! With good questions, a manager can:

  • Clarify a word, a situation, the meaning of something to improve understanding.
    • When you say “x,” what do you mean? How else might you say it so that we understand better?
  • Invite people to look at something from another perspective.
    • What solutions would you consider if you were the nurse in this clinic?
  • Show others that we value opinions and viewpoints and generate a range of possible solutions.
    • What do you think we should do? What do you want to achieve here?
  • Help others think through consequences they may not have considered.
    • If we do as you have suggested, what might the positive and negative impacts be on the doctors?
  • Slow down fast and careless reasoning.
    • In what ways would that benefit the people? Following that reasoning, what would the first steps be?
  • Expose hidden agendas.
    • Who would benefit from your strategy?
  • Help people learn, make sense of a situation, draw benefit from past experience.
    • We know what happened in this instance. What might we do differently next time?
  • Instill hope and inspire.
    • What opportunities lie before us in the next decade? In what ways are we the right people to achieve x?

As a practical matter, good managers and leaders need to ask many more questions than the number of answers they provide.

Questioning well

It is not enough to just ask questions. It is even more important to ask questions well. Here are some tips for asking good questions:

  • Open-ended vs. closed questions. The most powerful questions are those that are open-ended (usually beginning with “what” or “how?”) and allow the respondent to give a full and thoughtful response. An example of an open-ended question would be “How do you think the meeting went?” Reflect on the difference between this question and a closed question like “The meeting went well, didn’t it?” Yes or no questions limit the respondent’s range of responses and encourage them to agree with you rather than giving their real opinions. Sometimes a ‘why’ question can be useful, especially in coaching situations (“why is that important to you?,” but beware of asking ‘why’ in a tone that makes people defensive (“Why did you do that?”)
  • Curiosity. The best questions come from a place of true curiosity and interest. This means that you ask questions that you really want to know the answers to, including what someone else thinks about something, how they feel, what other options you might have, etc. When you are curious, you are trying to understand, not score a point. When you disagree with something, be sure to balance advocating your point of view with inquiry to find out about the other person’s reasoning.
  • Language. Words create worlds, say the practitioners of Appreciative Inquiry. This means that the words you use matter. If you ask a question that is future-oriented and encouraging, you will get a more future-oriented response plus excitement and commitment. Appreciative Inquiry has also taught us that if you want to know how to fail, ask questions about failure. If you want to know how to succeed, ask questions about success. Why is it that some projects are more successful than others? Ask the people involved in the success.
  • “Shift.” Develop good questions that are designed to “shift” people’s perspectives and open up new possibilities. These questions are especially important when coaching or promoting the learning of individuals or groups, or seeking profound changes in organizations. This means that crafting questions is important to ensure that they move others in the direction they want and need to go.

Here are some examples of limiting questions paired with questions that open new possibilities:

Limiting QUESTIONS Expanding Questions
What’s wrong with our team? How could our team be even better?
Why did you make that mistake? How might you handle this situation differently in the future?
What problems does your team have? What opportunities does your team have?
Why are you so unhappy? What do you want?
Whose fault is this? What am I/are we responsible for?
This is frustrating, isn’t it? How can we overcome these challenges?
What are we going to do to keep this from being a total failure? How can we turn this situation into a win?
What did we do wrong? Where can we take it from here?

See for yourself

Note: Youtube has an abundance of videos on powerful and appreciative questions for you to reference as you expand your understanding of the power of questions and practice using them.

Here are a couple of articles, as well:

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