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How Leaders Use Questions

Some executives like to lead by command. But you should question before you act. Here's why.

QuestionDo you have anything to share regarding the subject of asking the right questions? Someone once said "Forget the answers; focus on asking the right questions."

AnswerI'll always remember the mid-1980s commercials featuring Lee Iacocca, then considered one of America's finest business leaders, banging his fist on his board table and making tough proclamations. But consider the power of well-crafted questions. Statements invite agreement or disagreement. Commands invite rebellion or submission. How are questions different? Simple: Questions engage people. Questions can persuade an audience, align an organization, set direction, or focus attention on the things that enable people to learn.

The Socratic method
On a high school debate team, persuasion happens through fortified logic supported by facts and figures. Most companies work this way, too. You just lay out your logic, present supporting data, and voila—full buy-in is a cinch! … Not. That's because we're trained to argue when presented with someone else's logic. As parents of teenagers can attest, the first reaction to being told what to do is to attack any logic, explanation, or data that isn't what they want to hear.

Questions provoke answers, however. Ask a teenager "Where are you going?" and you will get an answer. (Most likely, "Out.") What they don't do is argue with the question or its assumptions. This is the basis for the Socratic method.

Rather than stating your logic, ask a series of questions chosen to lead your listeners to deduce the logic on their own. This questioning will take longer than lecturing, but you'll save time in the long run. Your listeners will reach their own conclusion based on your questions. They'll buy into a conclusion they've reached much faster than they will buy in to a conclusion that you just state.

Questioning will take longer than lecturing, but you'll save time in the long run.

To design your questions, first map out the logic that leads to your conclusion. Be thorough! Since you can't control peoples' answers, your data and logic must be airtight. (Otherwise be willing to be convinced when you get an answer you hadn't considered.)

Here's an example of the Socratic method in action: Imagine you're trying to change your culture to judge people based on results, rather than hours worked. You could say this:

"What we really care about is producing business results. Working smarter rather than harder can sometimes produce results. We must reward people who get their results quicker by giving them a bonus based on what they produce, rather than the hours they work."

You can imagine the response: "Sure we will, Pollyanna. And as long as people are working smart, let's have them work smart for sixty hours a week."

Here's how you might present the same logic as a chain of questions. It takes longer, but it keeps the listener engaged in understanding rather than arguing:

Q: Do we want the business to meet and exceed its goals?
A: Of course.
Q: If we've met our goals, who should be eligible for bonuses?
A: Everyone who contributed significantly to meeting the goals.
Q: So what matters is that bonuses be related to each person's contribution toward the goals?
A: Yes.
Q: What if someone figures out a way to work smarter, and reach goals with less work?
A: That would be great!
Q: And that would be as valuable as taking longer and doing it less efficiently?
A: Of course.
Q: So then how we should base our bonus structure?
A: Well… it should be based on working smarter and achieving results.

Using "how" and "why"
One of the biggest challenges in leading an organization is linking big-picture strategy to everyone's daily actions. It's all well and good to announce a sweeping vision like, "Our mission is to ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses HealthCo's products," but the next day, your facilities person still has to grab a plunger to clear out a clogged toilet. Guess what? She isn't thinking about the company vision. And once the toilet's working again, she probably still hasn't made the connection between what she does and the company's grand mission. Your job is to help her connect, and you can do it with questions.

In your conversations, ask, "How?" to help people move from high-level goals to specifics. "We want to build the world's best widgets." "How?" "Well, first we'll look up widget in a dictionary. Then, we'll…"

Be careful to revisit your questions from time to time.

Ask, "How?" enough and you can go from leadership goals all the way down to the paper clips needed to reach the goals. In fact, most layers of management essentially take their own goals, ask, "How can we reach these?" and use the answers as goals for their direct reports.

Asking "Why?" or "What do we achieve?" does the opposite; it moves from specifics to reasons. We can ask our facilities person, "Why are you fixing the toilet?"

A: "Because people need working facilities."
Q: "What will having working facilities achieve?"
A: "People can take care of themselves and concentrate on their work."
Q: "And why do they need to concentrate on their work?"
A: "So they can do good work."
Q: "And why do they need to do good work?"
A: "To ensure the health and safety of everyone who uses our products."

Each "Why?" moves to more basic goals and causes. You know your organization is tightly focused when "Why?" eventually leads to the company's vision, values, or purpose. It's rare that everyone can link their job to the mission, but boy, is it worth shooting for—it energizes and inspires a workforce even more than stock options in an Internet company.

Create culture using driving questions
Linking jobs to mission sets organizational direction. But questions also drive personal behavior. If your people ask the right questions relentlessly, you can create a powerful culture.

Take Winters Plumbing of Belmont, Massachusetts. The founders have the audacious vision of a billion-dollar plumbing empire. They ask daily, "How can we so satisfy our customers so that they make us the world's greatest residential plumber?" The answers have led them to reinvent how plumbers are hired and trained, how they dress, what they drive, and how they are paid. Winters just opened a $50,000 training center to help their plumbers keep getting better.

The driving question filters down to individual plumbers. A non-Winters plumber might ask, "How can I stop this leaky sink as quickly as possible?" They'll fix a sink. But a Winters plumber will ask, "How can I give this customer a great overall experience?" They'll arrive well groomed, in a freshly laundered uniform, fix the sink, and even vacuum the area, leaving it better than when they arrived. The right driving question makes all the difference.

As Marilee Goldberg, author of The Art of the Question (Wiley 1997), points out, some questions put us in a judgment mindset, while others stimulate creativity and problem solving.

When things go wrong, you can ask, "What happened and whose fault was it?" The answer may produce great diagnosis, along with a culture of blame and a reluctance to take risks.

Asking instead, "What was the root cause and how can we prevent it in the future?" may produce great diagnosis and encourage brainstorming about prevention.

Ask "How?" to help people move from high-level goals to specifics.

Be careful to revisit your questions from time to time. A real estate developer I worked with surpassed her dreams and built a $20 million empire, but she was heading towards an early grave from overwork. Every morning, she asked, "How can I make more money today?" Good question for amassing $20 million. Bad question for building a satisfying life once the money's in the bank.

We live in the so-called "information age," with a virtual epidemic of people asking for data that won't impact their actions one bit. They just like having data; it makes them feel secure.

If this describes you, resist! Think before asking. Know how you'll use the information and whether it's even the right question. I've taken dozens of customer satisfaction surveys that asked, "Did your problem get solved?" An important question, to be sure. But they didn't ask, "Did your problem get solved after four hours on the phone with poorly trained customer service people who made you want to run screaming into the night?" In fact, the December 2003 Harvard Business Review presents excellent research showing that simply asking, "Would you recommend us to a friend? Why or why not?" could generate better information than a ten-page survey.

We've barely scratched the surface of how you can use questions as a powerful leadership tool. Questions can also be used to communicate beliefs, set cultural norms, and push the edges of people's thinking. But for now, may I offer some questions that will help you make this concept real?

  • What are your current goals?
  • How must your organization act to reach those goals?
  • How can you use questions to persuade, align, create culture, and directly measure the world to help you reach those goals faster?

Answer well.

Stever Robbins is founder and president of LeadershipDecisionworks, Inc., a national consulting firm that helps corporate companies develop far-reaching leadership and organizational strategies to sustain growth and productivity over time. You can find more of his articles at http://LeadershipDecisionworks.com.