Five Common Questions Leaders Should Never Ask
Questioning is undoubtedly a valuable leadership tool. Asking the right questions can help business leaders to anticipate changes, seize opportunities, and move their organisations in new directions.
Questions can be great for engaging and motivating people, but they can just as easily be used to confront or blame, and can shift the mood from positive to negative. Questions focusing on strengths and using positive language are far more useful to organisations than questions with a negative focus.
Based on conversations with leadership experts around the world, author and speaker on innovation Warren Berger gives five examples of very common questions leaders may ask that can have the unintended effect of leading people in the wrong direction. With simple tweaks, the same questions can be used to engage people, rather than discourage them.
“What’s the problem?” Company leaders may often find themselves asking this question or some variation of it. Instead of inquiring about what’s gone wrong or focusing on “the problem,” it’s better to use positive questions geared to leveraging strengths and achieving goals: What are we doing well and how might we build upon that? What is the ideal outcome and how do we get closer to that?
“Whose fault is it?” This question focuses attention on finding a scapegoat when in reality, there is usually plenty of blame to go around for any failure or problem. A better approach would be to ask, How can we work together to shore up any weaknesses? That identifies weak links and areas in need of improvement without focusing too much on blame.
“Why don’t you do it this way?” This question may seem like a mere suggestion, but when asked by a leader, it’s truly a leading question — a way of imposing your ways on others. Better to allow people to figure out their own ideas and approaches, though you can sometimes help them along by asking, How were you thinking of doing it? What do you have in mind?
“Haven’t we tried this already?” Another, equally bad way of asking this is, Why do you think this would work when it hasn’t worked before? It’s not that a leader shouldn’t raise questions about proposed strategies — especially if something similar has been tried previously — but the tone is important. This version of the question comes off as condescending and even defeatist. It seems to suggest that everything has been thought of already, and that because something was tried once and didn’t work, it should never be considered again. Better to ask, If we tried this now, what would be different this time — and how might that change the results?
“What’s our iPad?” Some version of this question tends to be asked when a panicked boss reacts to a competitor introducing a hot new product. The leader turns to his or her staff and asks, in effect, Why haven’t you come up with something like that? Get cracking! The problem is, this question is leading people to be followers—to think that their job is to imitate what the other guy is doing, as quickly as possible. Rather than put it in those imitative terms, it’s better to ask questions like: Why is our competitor having success with this product? What need is it satisfying? How might we use our particular strengths to do an even better job of meeting customers’ needs?
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