Five questions leaders commonly ask incorrectly and how to improve them
The caliber of decisions made by leaders is often the result of the quality of information they have at the time. The value of this information is almost entirely determined by the power of the questions they ask. Yet too often what leaders actually ask of people and what leaders think they are asking of people are two different things.
It’s easy for leaders to let time pressure, the power of their position, or the perception of their expertise negatively impact the effectiveness of their questions without ever realizing it. Every time leaders ask a question based on what they want to say, they increase the risk of embarrassing their counterparts, asking questions with implicit expected answers, destroying their own credibility, and exposing the fact that they did not listen. This causes their counterparts to protect themselves, to question the motives of their leaders and to withhold information.
Great questions are based on what their counterparts have to experience. When leaders ask powerful questions, they help their counterparts save face, reduce ambiguity, increase perceptions of their own credibility, and create opportunities for additional insight. This in turn allows their counterparts to let their guard down, accept feeling vulnerable, and answer questions with more depth and precision.
Many leaders ask very common questions every day without getting the answers they want and blaming their counterparts. A few strategic tweaks turn these routine queries into powerful investigative tools that get more information, create coaching opportunities, and facilitate better decisions. Here are some common examples:
Do you have any questions? Most leaders really want their counterparts to respond honestly. However, they fail to consider that asking a question can make their counterparts feel embarrassed, seen as stupid, incompetent or not listening. Leaders are much more successful at getting honest answers when they relieve their counterparts of the responsibility of asking follow-up questions, illustrate how others have asked follow-up questions, and even demonstrate that they have asked follow-up questions. Examples include:
- What questions did I create?
- The question I usually get first is…
- The most common questions I usually receive are…
- Although I was hesitant at the time, the question I’m most grateful I asked was…
- The follow-up question that I regret not having asked the most was…
Why have you? or Why didn’t you? These seem like fair and straightforward questions for most leaders. However, they feel like accusations to most people who receive them. Leaders will consistently receive more honest answers when asking questions that initially shift blame away from the person to their process, goals, or operating context. Examples include:
- Why did you feel the need to…?
- What was the thought process that led you to…?
- What was the goal you were trying to achieve…?
- What was the biggest obstacle that prevented you from…?
- What distractions kept you away from…?
Do you remember?This is usually an inefficient question because your counterparts know you can’t prove what they remember. Generally, they will choose an answer that protects their interests. Leaders will be more successful in getting honest answers if they phrase the question in a way that gets their counterparts to tell the whole story in an unexpected way. Examples include:
- Thanks for taking me back to…
- Please guide me…
Do you know how?This is another question that seems simple but often unintentionally embarrasses the person receiving the question. Answering “no” is tantamount to feeling embarrassed, stupid, incapable, or ignoring previous instructions. Leaders will be more successful in encouraging honest responses by first shifting blame to the person and to any previous opportunity they have had to learn the information. Examples include:
- Did someone teach you to…?
- Has anyone taken the time to share…?
- Did anyone think it was valuable enough to guide you through…?
Will you finish on time? Most of the time, people know that there is only one acceptable answer to this question: yes. This forces them to respond with an implied expected response and hope for an opportunity to deliver or find a good excuse at the deadline. Given the importance of receiving an honest answer, leaders will benefit from moving the question from the person to the project. Examples include:
- How many additional resources should I consider allocating to ensure the project is completed on time?
- What is the biggest hurdle currently slowing the progress of this project?
- What are the top three adjustments we need to make to ensure we meet the deadline and the customer’s expectations?
Before asking questions, it is essential that leaders think about what is more important: identifying blame and responsibility or getting the information they need to make the best decisions and frame the thought processes of their counterparts. Speaking with victims, witnesses and suspects has taught me that people are much more willing to speak honestly and accept responsibility later in the conversation, when they can save face and believe that the investigating party is credible. Therefore, every important question should follow two rules: Focus on the problem, not the person. Focus on the resolution, not the consequences.