Having worked with thousands of leaders over 20 years of professional experience–from newly-minted supervisors to C-level executives–one of the most useful (yet underused) skills is the ability to know when and how to ask questions. On the continuum of ask/tell to inquiry/advocacy, leaders fall heavily towards tell and advocacy, missing chances to ask or inquire and achieving better results.
Do People Agree That Asking Questions Is Useful?
Intuitively, leaders I’ve worked with agree that asking well-timed and well-worded questions can reveal a treasure trove of information from colleagues, direct reports, their manager, clients, and customers. They understand the value of questions: giving others a chance to participate in problem-solving; providing a forum for sharing useful information; contributing to a culture of trust, diversity, and inclusion; fueling innovation.
So Why Isn’t It Done More?
A few years ago, I decided to ask why there seems to be more telling than asking. Consistently, I heard two common reasons:
- “I’m in charge and I’m supposed to tell and direct.” Even as organizations have moved away (or have they?) from top-down and directive leadership approaches, there persists a perception that “leaders” tell people what to do and should know the answers and directions. To them, asking questions can still be seen as weak or uninformed.
- “If I ask people for input, it takes more time.” In the short-term perhaps that is true. When we explore this logic further, leaders can easily remember times that not asking questions led to more complications, rework, talent issues, and sometimes loss of business.
Are There Other Reasons?
In my experience, I’ve found two other reasons why leaders don’t ask more questions:
- “It’s scary.” Sometimes asking questions can lead to hard-to-navigate conversations or surprises. What if I probe for information, solutions, or issues and the answers aren’t what I expected? What if I don’t know how to respond?
- “I don’t know how.” There is definitely an art and a science to know what kinds of questions to ask, whom to ask, and when to ask. The corollary is that people have sometimes had less-than-positive experiences when they have tried to be more inquisitive.
What Can You Do?
For people who are already comfortable and good at asking questions, keep it up!
Here are some suggestions for those who want to improve:
- Reframe: Visualize a horizontal continuum of “ask” on one end and “tell” on the other, and map yourself on it. Imagine moving yourself to the “ask” side periodically. Commit to the philosophy that there is a world of information to be gathered! Asking questions is a way to tap into people’s experiences, ideas, thoughts, and concerns and will help improve your outcomes.
- Study and learn: There are a number of tools and resources—from podcasts to journal articles to online courses—that help develop the skill to ask questions. An easy trick is to listen to yourself and identify times when you can turn a “tell” comment into an “ask” question. Find opportunities to practice, either one-on-one or with trusted teams.
- Enlist others: Use a variety of people (peers, direct reports, clients, anyone!) to help you listen for and provide just-in-time feedback on when and how you’re asking questions and the impact it is having.
At Perkins+Will, we continue to develop employees at all levels and are excited to build important skills, like asking great questions, into our culture of leadership.