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Leaders Don't Need All the Answers

The Power of Asking Questions

When we picture a leader, we often think of someone making bold decisions at the front of the room or issuing orders in a time of crisis. And in recent years television has served up plenty of examples of exactly that kind of leadership: Logan Roy’s authoritarian rule in Succession. Olivia Pope’s top-down approach in Scandal. John Dutton’s (literal) iron fist in Yellowstone.

Yet while those TV leaders unquestionably got results, the most effective leaders aren’t the ones with all the answers. Instead, they’re the ones who know how to ask the right questions. Just ask Ted Lasso. I was reluctant to start this series, but thanks to my husband’s urging, I found myself a fan. Now I’m just short of posting a Believe poster over my doorway.

The benefits of leading with curiosity

Some leaders chafe at the idea that they should be asking questions, assuming that they’ll come across as unconfident or lacking in knowledge. In fact, the opposite is true. Leaders who suffer from “smartest person in the room” syndrome are likely to miss out on crucial information, not to mention alienate those who work for them.

First and foremost, asking genuine questions builds trust with your team. By letting them know you don’t have all the answers and that you depend on their knowledge and expertise, you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable and build authentic connections.

Second, asking good questions broadens your own knowledge. People aren’t promoted into leadership positions because of their vast knowledge of every topic under the sun. (Or if someone was, I might recommend a career on Jeopardy instead.) The best leaders know how to “phone a friend” – to surround themselves with experts who can provide them with the facts they need to make sound decisions.

Leading with curiosity also develops your people, a top engagement factor. The right questions push people to expand their own knowledge and analytic skills. And, asking more general questions about the work people are doing, or would like to do in the future, can give you a sense of how to help them reach their full potential.

Finally, asking powerful questions creates a learning culture. Leaders who value continuous learning give the people around them permission to seek new knowledge and skills, which helps organizations evolve and grow.

But what exactly is a “good question?”

The questions you choose to ask as a leader matter. Below are some examples of the types of questions that spur collaboration and encourage progress.

Big questions that open dialogue. As leaders, we have a lot of influence over discussions. By asking open questions we encourage nonhierarchical dialogue instead of shutting down the sharing of ideas with our perceived authority. Asking “Can you explain this error?” sets a much different tone than “How can the process be improved going forward?” Big, open questions invite people to come together to explore new ways of doing things. Here are some examples:

  • What needs do our clients/stakeholders have that we’re not meeting yet?

  • When are we at our best as a team?

  • How could we simplify this process?

  • What’s working here and what’s not working?

  • What does this look like in two years?

Open questions often begin with What/How/When and not Can/Do/Have.

I keep this post-it note on my monitor to remind myself of this during my coaching and leader engagements.

Questions that seek information from diverse perspectives. Leadership doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and that includes the safe bubble of your usual trusted advisors. Looking for answers beyond the usual suspects, including outside your team or industry, can yield different and important information.

Inquiries that challenge assumptions and test conventional beliefs. Challenging assumptions with questions like “Why do we do it this way?" or "What is a better solution?" can foster critical thinking and can lead to breakthroughs in innovation and efficiency. Encourage and reward those who bring to light contrary points of view – they can help avoid big missteps and encourage a culture of curiosity going forward.

Questions that demonstrate care. Workers are voicing an increased desire to work for a company that cares about them. Questions like, "How are you feeling about this project?" or "What can I do to support you?" show empathy, establish ownership in the work, and build connections. Taking the time to get to know employees on a personal level by asking about their joys, struggles, and aspirations outside of work lays an important foundation of trust and loyalty. Plus, employees who feel genuinely cared about at work are less likely to seek employment elsewhere.

Reflective questions to further your own development. Sometimes the most important questions are the ones you ask yourself. While it’s important to reflect with your team on successes and challenges, it’s equally important to take time to ask yourself, "What did I learn from this experience?" or "How can I be a stronger ally for anyone at my place of work?" Reflective questions like this raise self-awareness which is critical to good leadership.

The art of asking effective questions

Even with the right questions, sometimes it’s all in the delivery. Here are some tips to ensure you’re setting a collaborative tone.

Be genuine in your inquiries. Questions are only powerful when they come from a place of authenticity. Ask because you truly want to know – people can tell the difference.

Listen to the answer. This may seem obvious, yet it’s a step many leaders skip. Asking a question when you already think you know the answer is a set-up, and no one likes feeling like they’re playing a part that’s already been scripted. Actively listen and engage in a dialogue.

Keep it simple. Sometimes the simplest question is the most open to creating dialogue. Try, “Why is that?” or “What do you think of that?” to learn more about your colleague’s thought process and data points.

Reserve judgment and encourage honesty. Create a safe space where your team feels comfortable sharing their honest thoughts and opinions. Make it clear that you won't punish or judge them for speaking up, and thank them for their candor.

Follow up. After asking a question, make sure to follow up to provide updates, share progress, and acknowledge people’s contributions. This helps build trust and reinforces the importance of their input.

These days it feels almost trite to talk about how fast the world is changing, but it’s the truth. And as the pace of change accelerates, leaders who rely solely on their own knowledge and experience will fall behind. The path forward is one of collective knowledge, not the brain trust of just a few people at the top. When it comes to success, good questions will trump having all the answers every time.


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