Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask

A questioning culture has six hallmarks. When an organization has a questioning culture, the people in it Are willing to admit, “I don't know.” Go beyond allowing questions; they encourage questions. Are helped to develop the skills needed to ask questions in a positive way. Focus on asking empowering questions and avoid disempowering questions. Emphasize the process of asking questions and searching for answers rather than finding the “right” answers. Accept and reward risk taking.

Courage is always an act, not a thought. You cannot think your way into courage; you act your way into courage. Asking

Creativity requires asking questions for which an answer is not already known. The truth is that innovation is rarely the product of pure inspiration, that “Eureka!” moment when some genius comes up with a wholly new idea. Rather, innovation happens when people see things differently. It starts with a questioning culture that helps people gain new perspective and see things differently. Innovation is generated by great questions in an environment that encourages questions.

Do you ever feel defensive when people ask you questions? Do you ever hesitate to ask a question, fearing it may reveal ignorance or doubt? If so, you are closing off the free flow of information and ideas your organization needs and potentially undermining relationships with those around you. In fact, avoiding questions can cause serious harm—and even disaster.

Groupthink is the term Irving Janis coined for this phenomenon: the kind of flawed group dynamics that lets bad ideas go unchallenged by questions and disagreement and that can sometimes yield disastrous outcomes.

Historians who carefully examined the events and details behind the disasters of the Titanic, the Challenger, and the Bay of Pigs have determined a common thread: the inability or unwillingness of participants and leaders to raise questions about their concerns. Some group members were fearful that they were the only one who had a particular concern (when, in fact, it was later discovered that many people in the group had similar concerns).

I have come to realize that much of my success can be attributed to the fact that I believe in the capacity of the people who have worked with me. I truly think that the leader who tries to know it all and tells everyone what to do is doomed to failure.

In organizations that discourage questions, on the other hand, questions and those who ask them may be seen as threatening. And when questions are not responded to openly or honestly, or are actually rejected, those who ask them can feel put down and marginalized.

John Kotter, the noted Harvard professor and author on leadership, writes that the key difference between leaders and managers is that leaders focus on getting to the right questions, whereas managers focus on finding solutions to those questions.13 The focus on finding answers must not obscure the importance of asking the right questions. Successful leaders know that they cannot get the right answer without asking the right questions.

Kouzes and Posner emphasize the importance of leaders' engaging people throughout the organization in what they do and why they do it. They ask us to imagine how much more ownership of the values of the organization there would be when leaders actively involve a wide range of people in their development. “Shared values,” they note, “are the result of listening, appreciating, building consensus and practicing conflict resolution. For people to understand the values and come to agree with them, they must participate in the process.

leaders of great companies are both very humble and very persistent.

Leaders who promote a questioning culture in their organizations move people from dependence to independence.

Learning depends on curiosity and asking questions. The experience of curiosity is equivalent to continuously living and operating out of a question frame as simple as “What's this?”—as all children do. It is through questions that we operationalize curiosity into behavior, and as a result they are the foundation of any kind of learning, be it formal, informal, or personal.

Like Jeff Carew, a growing number of leaders recognize that their organization's success, if not its very survival, depends on creating a learning organization, an organization that is able to quickly adapt to the changing environment, where every engagement becomes a learning opportunity, where learning and business objectives are necessarily interlinked. The ability to ask questions goes hand in hand with the ability to learn. A learning organization is possible only if it has a culture that encourages questions.

Many years ago, in his best-selling classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie noted that “an effective leader asks questions instead of giving orders.” Oakley and Krug call questions the “ultimate empowerment tool” for the leader.12 They observe that the better we as leaders become at asking effective questions and listening for the answers to those questions, the more consistently we and the people with whom we work can accomplish mutually satisfying objectives, be empowered, reduce resistance, and create a willingness to pursue innovative change.

Of course, many leaders do ask questions constantly—questions such as these: Why are you behind schedule? Who isn't keeping up? What's the problem with this project? Whose idea was that? Too often, we ask questions that disempower rather than empower our subordinates. These questions cast blame; they are not genuine requests for information. Other sorts of questions are often no more than thinly veiled attempts at manipulation: Don't you agree with me on that? Aren't you a team player? If you tend to ask these sorts of questions, this book is for you. So the point isn't that leaders just don't ask enough questions. Often, we don't ask the right questions. Or we don't ask questions in a way that will lead to honest and informative answers. Many of us don't know how to listen effectively to the answers to questions—and haven't established a climate in which asking questions is encouraged. And that's where this book comes in. The purpose of Leading with Questions is to help you become a stronger leader by learning how to ask the right questions effectively, how to listen effectively, and how to create a climate in which asking questions becomes as natural as breathing.

Organizational cultures that encourage curiosity and questions help people develop themselves. People who ask questions have more self-confidence, as they see the people they question show appreciation and respect for the question and the questioner. When a nonthreatening environment for questions is a daily reality, people become ever more comfortable with themselves, know their strengths better, and are more self-assured. As leaders see their peers and their staff demonstrate greater capability and responsibility in responding to questions and taking more initiative, they can be more relaxed and flexible.

Others felt that their question had already been answered in the minds of other group members, and if they asked the question, it would be considered a dumb question, and they would be put down as being stupid or not going along with the group. Because people did not ask questions, people lost lives when the Titanic sank, when the Challenger crashed, when President Kennedy authorized a covert attack on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.

Peter Drucker found that effective executives all tended to follow the same nine practices: They asked, “What needs to be done?” They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?” They developed action plans. They took responsibility for decisions. They took responsibility for communicating. They were focused on opportunities rather than problems. They ran productive meetings. They thought and said “we” rather than “I.” They listened first, spoke last!14 Questions are at the heart of each of these practices.

Questioning cultures, by generating self-confidence, also tend to encourage adaptability in meeting new challenges. People who are comfortable with questions are nimble in adjusting to fluid change and limber in their thinking in the face of new data or realities. They can juggle demands without losing focus or energy. They are comfortable with ambiguity. Questioning leaders are likely to remain calm and clear-headed under high stress or during a crisis, and to remain unflappable when confronted by trying situations. Robert Hoffman, executive director of human resources and organizational development at Novartis, highlights this aspect of a questioning culture:

Questioning helps people gain perspective and understand the perspectives of others. As they see issues and problems from different points of view, they gain an appreciation for their complexity—and also expand the range of possible solutions.

Questioning leaders are realists and don't inflate the importance of their own efforts. They take the time to drill down into problems by asking questions. Questioning leaders recognize that everyone is needed, and that everyone should serve one another, if the organization is to be successful.

Questions have changed me immensely. I have greater self-confidence and a more relaxed attitude. I don't feel that I always have to have the answers in conversations or in situations where I need to speak at the spur of the moment. I feel this has increased my communication skills, especially listening and persuading. I have more trust in myself and others. Leading with questions has led to more trust, which appears to be a paradox of group life. I have stronger initiative and commitment. I learn more as I have become more directional by more questions. I have more patience and self-control, have greater openness and transparency. I now see myself as more adaptable and flexible. I am optimistic about opportunities [and] more inspirational and have greater vision and cognitive capability. Questions have given me greater understanding of organizational and political realities; I recognize the importance of organizational context and orientation. I am more willing to take risks in creating opportunities. I have a greater empathy with employees, customers, and others and a stronger commitment to develop others. My empowerment orientation is greater.

Questions needed to be asked: What could happen if I did this? Is there any other way to think about this? What possibilities exist that I haven't thought of yet?

The importance of asking questions was forcefully conveyed in 1843 when John Stuart Mill wrote The System of Logic, in which he noted the emptiness of a set of opinions accumulated without the help of strong-sense critical thinking. “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may have been good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, he has no ground for preferring with opinion.”15

The important thing about leadership is not what happens when you're there but what happens when you are not there.

The problem with this,” Jeff noted, “is if you do not create and maintain a working environment where you are always asking questions of your employees and forcing them to think, then you will probably never be any better tomorrow than you are today. Yesterday's solutions will not solve tomorrow's problems. “I learned that you need to get to a different level of thinking if you are going to tackle tomorrow's problems—and who else is better to teach you how your environment is changing than the managers on the floor or in the trenches?

Through questions, leaders seek to learn not only what directly causes the problem or what solutions may work (which is single-loop learning), but also to seek to discover and learn what might be the underlying causes and solutions (double-loop learning) as well as the culture and mindset that create these causes and solutions (triple-loop learning).

We feel a sense of ownership about opinions we call our own. It often takes incredible courage to give up on an opinion we have held for some time after listening to someone else.

We live in a fast-paced, demanding, results-oriented world. New technologies place vast quantities of information at our fingertips in nanoseconds. We want problems solved instantly, results yesterday, answers immediately. We are exhorted to forget “ready, aim, fire” and to shoot now and shoot again. Leaders are expected to be decisive, bold, charismatic, and visionary—to know all the answers even before others have thought of the questions.