Leading with Questions (How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask?) by Michael J. Marquardt
I spent 2 years with Ron McLuckie learning the art and science of leading with questions, first through the Action Learning program for Coaches and then the Senior Executive Action Learning Program run by WIAL, co-founded by Dr Michael Marquardt. Ron is the Chairman and Chief Executive for their India operations. He has done seminal work in the area of leadership and organization development in the country. I am grateful to not only have been coached by him but also to have him contribute to transforming the leadership consciousness in our country.
Before the concept of 'Leading with Questions' hit me straight on my face and woke me up from my slumber, I was a 'telling my people what to do' kind of a leader both at work and at home, who always had to have an answer to all the problems. It was an exhausting way to lead. As John Stuart Mill says in his book The System of Logic:
"Asking more of the right questions reduces the need to have all the answers. Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means to have the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights."
Though the problem usually is, as Dr Marquardt points out that too often, we ask questions that disempower rather than empower our subordinates. These questions can cast blame; they are not genuine requests for information.
•Why are you behind schedule?
•What’s the problem with this project?
•Who isn’t keeping up?
The risk with leading with questions as a tactic without the shift on the inside is that it will end up creating more disengagement and alienation in the organisation than a purposeful coming together for the best solution and effective implementation by people on the ground themselves taking complete ownership and accountability. That is why, in our leadership evolution methodology, learning to ask great questions is a Gear 3 (Communicating while Being in the World of Others) skill after the leaders have been immersed in Gear 1 (Agility of Mind) and Gear 2 (Being of Service) Leadership Consciousness.
The power of questions had been understood even 2000 years ago. Folklore has it that when people went to Socrates with their problems, he would respond back with questions for people to discover their own answers. That makes him the first known coach in the world. The coach's secret power is the ability to lead their clients from their original question to an even greater question, shifting the way they look at their problem and their world itself. The coach's job is not so much to give answers to their clients' questions but more to create the space for them to access their own wisdom to find their own answers and lead them to even more powerful questions. Finding answers is the easiest thing. The challenge lies in discovering the right questions. A really effective leader is a one who understands that his role is not only to lead but also to nurture and coach.
Dr Marquardt does a phenomenal job at deconstructing and teaching the what, when, where, who, whom, why and how of leading with questions with amazing clarity. If it isn't as yet, include this book as part of your essential reading for your leadership team. And, of course, begin with yourself first, if you are really serious about sustainable transformation of your organisation from good to great.
Here are few gems from the book for you to experience the power of leading with questions:
1. Leaders who use questions can truly empower people and change organizations. Poor leaders rarely ask questions of themselves or others. Good leaders, on the other hand, ask many questions. Great leaders ask great questions. And great questions can help you become a great leader.
2. 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. Questions enable people to increase alignment, engagement and accountability. It is not simply asking more questions. It is asking more and better questions. Avoiding questions can cause serious harm – even disaster. Because people did not ask questions, the Titanic sank and people lost lives.
3. Questions are useful for giving feedback, problem solving, strategic planning, resolving conflicts, team building. When we avoid questions, all these activities suffer.
4. Organizations and leaders who avoid questions are actually losing opportunities to learn. By telling rather than asking, they are actually making their organizations dumber, less smart, less aligned, and less energised everyday. A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. The dumbest questions can be the most powerful. They can unlock a conversation.
5. If you ask profound questions, you get profound answers. If you ask shallow questions , you get shallow answers. If you ask no questions, you get no answers at all.
6. Deep significant learning occurs only as a result of reflection, and reflection is not possible without a question. Questions, especially challenging ones, cause us to think and learn. The point is not to find the answer. Rather in a questioning culture we keep asking and learning. There is no correct answer, the point of asking questions is to gain perspective.
7. Questions can certainly empower and motivate people more effectively than exhortatory statements do. Good questions empower people to devise their own solutions. When people discover their own answers, they develop self-responsibility and accept ownership of the results. Asking people questions shows that you value them. Questions move people from dependence to independence.
8. Most people are totally unaware of and unconscious about the internal questions they ask themselves - even though such inquiries virtually program their thoughts, feelings, actions, and outcomes. Self-reflections enable us to better understand ourselves, gaining insight into why we do some things and avoid doing other things.
9. We have difficulty with questions for four primary reasons:
a. We avoid questions out of a natural desire to protect ourselves.
b. We are too often in a rush.
c. We often lack skills in asking or answering questions due to a lack of experience and opportunities, of training, and of a role model.
d. We find ourselves in corporate cultures and working environments that discourage questions, especially those that challenge exacting assumptions and policies.
10. Fear inhibits us from asking questions in another way. We sometimes fear that if we ask a question we will get an answer that we do not like, one that depicts us as a part of the problem, or one that indicates that a favoured project has gone off course.
11. Most of us feel more comfortable in efficiently making statements and providing answers. We do not have the discipline or the commitment to make time for questions.
12. The capacity to ask fresh questions in conditions of ignorance, risk, and confusion, when nobody knows what to do next is at the heart of great leadership.
13. Insights are more likely when you can look inside yourself and not focus on the outside world.
14. There is no such thing as the correct answer; it is only perspective.
15. Depending on how the leader asks a question, it can be perceived as “an invitation, a request, or a missile.”
16. When you talk it stops others from expressing themselves. And, so began that revelation that leadership is about listening.
17. Start by asking yourself, “What is the most important thing to the other person?”
18. It is important for leaders to fully recognize and understand the power of words.
What do I want my question to accomplish?
We end up creating that which we focus on.
‘What’s wrong?’ questions threaten self-esteem and thereby cause people to get mired in problems.
Empowering questions, on the other hand, get people to think and allow them to discover their own answers, thus developing self-responsibility and transference of ownership for the results.
In empowering others, the leader must resist the urge of give people advise. When people ask for help, the leader must ask them questions so that they come up with their own answers.
19. Instead of asking disempowering questions, such as “Why are you behind schedule?”, “What’s the problem with this project?”; Leaders can ask empowering questions such as these:
a. How do you feel about the project?
b. What have you accomplished so far that you are most pleased with?
c. How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?
d. Which of these objectives do you think will be easiest to accomplish? Which will be most difficult?
e. What will be the benefits to our customers if you can meet all these objectives - for our company, for our team, for you personally.
f. What key things need to happen to achieve the objective?
g. What kind of support do you need to ensure success?
20. Great questions are selfless; they are not asked to illustrate the cleverness of the questioner or to generate an interesting response for the questioner. They are generally supportive, insightful, and challenging.
Empowering questions such as:
•What’s on your mind?
•Can you tell me about that?
•Can you help me understand?
•What should we be worried about?”
21. Some more empowering questions:
•What is a viable alternative?
•What are the advantages and disadvantages you see in this suggestion?
•Can you more fully describe your concerns?
•What are your goals?
•How would you describe the current reality?
•What are a few options for improvement?
•What will you commit to do and by when?
22. Great questions for leaders to ask themselves:
•What matters most?
•What is one problem that I can turn into an opportunity?
•What do employees need to hear from me?
•What is our customers’ greatest pain?
•What new business relationship will I pursue?
•How will I be more strategic?
•How can I make swift yet smart decisions?
•What leadership skills can and should I get better at?
•How will I recognize success?
•What is my biggest fear, and how will I face it?
23. Grasping the art of questioning can lead to impressive results; asking inappropriate questions usually closes learning. The attitude, mindset, pace, timing, environment, and context - all can affect the impact of our questions. Asking a question at the right time in the right manner and with the right person is just as important as the content of the question itself.
24. Best approach is to be a supporting coach rather than the judging boss. Coaching is the opposite of bossing. A coaching-type relationship helps people work out issues and find their own answers though the skilful use of probing questions.
25. The key to framing good questions is to inquire about the “quest” in your questions. What do you want this person to think about? What do you want to learn? A questioning mindset shows that you care about the other person. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Wishing you the joy of the conversation.
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