Part of my job is to teach leaders to ask questions. This is a challenge for many leaders. Their career success has been built on knowing the answer. Having to ask questions goes against what has made them successful. If they know the answer, why ask?
A few years ago this made a lot of sense. Business was much simpler. Once you figured out a system that worked, your job was to replicate it. In other words, once you knew the answer, you simply had to answer the question the same way to ensure success. Knowing the answer was important.
What worked in the past may not in the future
These days business has changed. Our world is becoming much more complex. This means the level of uncertainty and variability is higher. What worked in the past may not work in the future. This is a game changer. You can no longer rely on the usual answer to address the problem. You may need to figure out a new answer because the situation is different.
Leaders need to suspend their judgement and ask questions
In this instance, if you think you know the answer, you are probably going to be wrong. It requires a leader to ask a question and suspend their judgment. This is hard, but with practice you can learn to do it well. Especially when you start getting answers that surprise you and also make sense.
I had to learn to do this as a coach. My client may explain how they feel about something using an obvious term. For example, they may say they feel fine about it. But what does fine mean? Does it mean ‘I accept it, no big deal’. Or ‘I’m moving on but I’m never going to forget’. That is a very big difference.
Even when you think you understand, it pays to ask another question. Andy Grove, former Intel CEO and highly respected business leader, did this all the time. In his book, ‘Only the paranoid survive‘, he describes this as a key management behavior. Never assume you understand. By doing this, Andy usually helped the other person expand their perspective. No question was off limits.
As a leader, how are you at asking questions? When you think you know, do you ask another question?
Great point Andy. Especially about suspending judgment. I would also add that the tone and manner in which the leaders ask the question matters in these situations. Generally, I have found that questioning that comes across as incisive probing won’t reveal nearly as much as questions undertaken in a mood of shared wonder/curiosity (which is implied by “suspending judgment”)
Thank you Phillip, your point is spot on. How we do it is also extremely important. Great advice!
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