November 2011: Asking Deeper Questions Promotes Better ThinkingNovember 1, 2011
What has most influenced your leadership success: your technical/subject matter expertise, or your ability to help others grow?
Our leadership clients tend to possess a high degree of subject matter knowledge, yet they report that asking questions stimulates more growth for their employees than lecturing, suggesting solutions, or telling others what to do.
Business heads tell us that when they solve, fix and answer, they foster “empty-headed obedience.” In contrast, when they probe and question, their key staff members tend to come up with independent ideas that build confidence.
It’s one thing to intellectually understand the value of questions; it’s another to actually deliver penetrating questions that jump-start real learning.
Not all questions are helpful.
Unhelpful questions fall into three categories: (1) Insulting questions, (2) Leading questions and (3) Superficial questions.
Insulting questions communicate blame:
- “What kind of a jerk would say that in public?”
- “Who do you think you are?”
- “Why waste your time approaching him?”
- “Can you see how you caused this mess?”
Leading questions betray the biases of the sender by revealing pre-determined solutions:
- “Don’t you think our process would run smoother if we followed these guidelines?”
- “Has postponing the meeting until tomorrow occurred to you?”
- “What would happen if you just told her you won’t be attending?”
- “Would it be smarter if you talked to your boss privately about this?”
Superficial questions have their place – surface chatter can be useful in building initial rapport. But questions about third parties are grossly over-posed by leaders, and tend to feed triviality:
- “Why does Rich always complain about Molly?”
- “How do you like your new desk?”
- “What did you think of Janine’s hair yesterday?”
- “How are we doing this morning?”
Deeper questions produce growth
Leaders who regularly reflect on and learn from experience, and those who cultivate personal wonder and perspective, enjoy a substantial advantage as mentors. Their questions have an agnostic (“I don’t know”) quality. When they pose those curious, deeper questions, the person listening has to do the hard work of thinking.
The “hard work of thinking” produces leadership gold: new ideas, important learning, self-awareness and initiative.
In contrast, employee growth is discouraged by a leader’s omniscience, the fantasy that he or she knows all. Leaders reveal such irrational confidence when they attempt to pry “the right answer” out of someone.
Examples of deeper questions
Deeper questions take a different direction:
- “What do you think is really going on here?”
- “What’s the most important thing you have to learn from this?”
- “What have you noticed about your communication with the customer service team?”
- “If you could make one change in your situation, what would it be?”
- “What do you think Ray is up against trying to connect with you?”
- “What conversations, if any, do you find yourself avoiding?”
- “How do you work yourself out of a dilemma like this?”
- “What’s your part in what happened?”
Incubators of personal depth
Being able to produce these kinds of questions might be the hidden heart of leadership.
But how do leaders generate questions that propel growth?
This is not an automatic process. Deeper questions come from a complex combination of factors that include:
- One’s genetic endowment (one’s innate thinking capacity)
- The breadth of one’s exposure to the realities of life
- One’s sensory attunement – the capacity to notice, observe, hear and sense – which implies having enough calmness to pay attention
- The degree of curiosity and reflection one brings to day-to-day encounters and experiences
The best leaders make time for whatever activities feed their own depth and awareness. For some this might be a walk in the woods, sketching, or initiating philosophical discussions. Others turn to music, meditation, prayer or inspirational reading.
If a leadership goal is the delivery of high value to your family, business or community, and if you believe that asking deeper questions can help you do that, what personal disciplines might contribute to your personal depth and perspective?
I’ll leave you with that challenging question.