Business and Leadership Thought Capital

The Questioning Leader

Business leaders can talk a lot – sometimes too much.

There are certainly senior executives out there who have very interesting things to say. Likewise, legions of leaders and managers inspire their teams every day through highly developed communication skills.

But there are also many not-so-interesting or downright demotivating leaders who just don’t know when to stop the gush of words emanating from their mouths. Some senior executives simply like thinking out loud while others get so energized that they literally can’t shut up. Many honestly just love the sound of their own voice. More than a few aren’t really that interested in what other people have to say anyway.

All of us have probably worked for a verbose leader at one time or another. If you’re like me, you’ve probably found yourself drifting off in the middle of a conversation with them or forgetting details that seemed important at the time.

You’ve probably also discovered that these kinds of executives often spend a lot of time telling people how to do their jobs. Sometimes they’re so enthralled with their vision that they don’t want to let anyone or anything get in their way – and certainly not employees who might only have a “limited” understanding of the situation or personal agendas they’re pursuing.

Such senior business people tend to get upset when their teams don’t do what they’ve been told to do or do it differently than they were instructed. They wonder why there is so little initiative, team-spirit and entrepreneurial drive in their organizations. They get furious when the same problem they think they’ve fixed occurs again and again. Communication in their organizations disintegrates quickly and their ability to get underneath the business and understand what’s really happening can become almost impossible. Their businesses frequently head south quickly.

That’s generally around the time they start thinking about hiring consultants to solve the problem.

What these executives probably don’t know is that even in the best of situations most people/employees only take in about 30 percent of what they are told. Frequently whatever they tell members of their teams – regardless of how developed their communication skills are – is forgotten quickly and not acted upon.

But when these same employees are asked probing questions first and they’re put into a position of having to think and come up with an answer themselves, quite the opposite happens. People in these situations remember almost 70% of the conversation. Because they “own” the answer and the activities required to implement the solution they arrived at, they are more motivated to follow through. Accountability automatically goes up.

You’d think then that senior executives would understand that they have the permission to pose questions to their team members as often as is necessary. Better yet, I’ll pose this as a simple question: Why don’t more business leaders take advantage of this powerful tool?

First, there’s always the chance an executive might find out things he’d rather not know about himself, his team or company by inadvertently asking the wrong question. Second, many executives are so caught up in the day-to-day worries of meeting payroll, serving clients and customers while trying to grow their businesses that they easily lapse into a command-and-control mentality. Asking well-formulated, thoughtful questions at just the right time can be very difficult and requires more time than simply giving the answer.

But more importantly, too many executives are afraid that if they don’t have all the answers they’ll be taken less seriously as leaders and make them vulnerable. Worst case they’re afraid that asking too many questions will look like they don’t know what they’re doing.

Indeed, there are situations in the course of doing business that call for a more command-and-control leadership such as major crises or when there is a short turnaround time for something to be completed. But even then, a senior executive needs to be highly mindful of how he’s interacting with his staff.

Consider for a moment how easily a senior executive can increase his effectiveness and that of his staff by perfecting this technique:

  1. Asking questions ensures that the chances of misinterpretation by the other party are minimized. If done properly, employees will be more motivated to understand the actions they should take and feel more at ease asking clarifying questions.
  2. Leaders with good questioning skills are better able to gather information faster and more completely than their less skilled counterparts. They often find themselves one step ahead of everyone else which in turn helps them better leaders.
  3. The simple act of asking someone a sincere question or an opinion breaks down barriers to communication that inevitably arise between a senior executive and his employees. Good questions show you care.
  4. Questions are also a great way to diffuse difficult situations. Instead of issuing commands that might not pierce through the tension of a given moment, a questioning leader can change the dynamic in a split second by stepping away and asking a good question.

But there’s another less well-understood advantage to asking great questions, especially for all of us control freaks out there. Consider for a moment that the person asking the questions has much more control of the conversation than the person or persons being asked. The questioner is in a better position to steer the conversation anywhere he or she wants it to go while the other party has little choice than to follow along. It’s a far more advanced and subtler form of control than barking out orders.

Of course, none of this means anything if the executive isn’t a good listener. But that’s a story for another day.

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