Asking Better Questions Leads to Clarity and Develops Employees

An employee enters your office with a problem and in turn you offer a solution. 

As an executive coach, leadership development advisor and Vistage chair I have worked with hundreds of executives who want to solve all the problems of their employees.  Why not?  Isn’t that what they are paid to do, solve problems?

But, is this the best way to handle a problem an employee brings to you?

Not in the long-term. As discussed on the Harvard Business Review blog, providing answers to employees may be the most efficient way to get things done, but great leaders respond in a more value-adding way: by asking the right questions and helping the employee find the best solution themselves.

And as my clients find out, when an employee finds their own solution, they own it and are more likely to be successful.

Jack Zenger, who is considered an expert in leadership agrees, and wrote for Forbes. “If I could change one common behavior of nearly all executives it would be to have them stop answering such questions from subordinates,”

Understanding the value of questions and how to ask the right ones will go a long way in helping you help and develop others, which is a critical skill of great leaders.

Benefits to asking good questions

First, what are good questions? Good questions solicit meaningful and potentially creative answers.

Leaders, who lead by questioning, rather than needing to always be in control, will see improvements in many areas, some of which include:

  • team learning;
  • personal awareness;
  • leadership-as-coach relationship;
  • problem solving; and
  • innovation.

Asking the right questions

To improve your questioning skills, here are some tips that have worked for executives I have coached:

  1. Be curious. Think more about situations and problems and encourage everyone else at your organization to do the same.
  2. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions. We can’t fully trust our own beliefs and assumptions because they are skewed by personal bias and past experiences. Open your mind to the potential complexity of the subject at hand.
  3. Ask yourself whose decision it is to make. If it is your decision to make, ask questions that will help you arrive at the best answer. If it is another employee’s decision to make, ask the employee  questions to help him or her reach a conclusion.
  4. Don’t ask leading questions. I call these the Jeopardy questions. Leading questions attempt to lead others to see the way you do, rather than to understand the other person’s perspective.
  5. Ask open-ended and diverse questions.
  6. Ask empowering questions. Empowering questions move people to positive action, rather than assigning blame.
  7. Ask questions that create clarity. What else is known about the situation or problem? Can it be broken down?
  8. Ask questions that help employees think analytically and critically.
  9. Understand that asking questions take time.
  10. Only ask questions if you are prepared to listen and consider the answers.

Think about it. How can you incorporate more questioning into your leadership style? 

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Beth Miller

Beth Armknecht Miller, CMC, of Atlanta, Georgia, is a Vistage Chair and President of Executive Velocity, a leadership development and coaching firm accelerating the leadership success of CEOs and business leaders from emerging to midsize com…

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  1. Thank you for exploring this topic Beth. I am so passionate about the subject, I released a book entitled “The Magic of High Quality Questions” last year. We explain that there is a direct correlation between the answers that you get (solutions in your world) and the quality of the questions that you ask. We also spend time deconstructing of some of the best questions that you can ask. I appreciate your bringing more awareness to this subject and I wish you further successful question-asking.

    • Beth

      October 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Hugh, thx for the positive feedback. In the spirit of better questions, what is the most powerful question you use?

  2. DK

    October 10, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    Another perspective is that I know not all leaders can give a straight answer at that moment, but providing that direction is key, or else executives would end up “second-guessing” what their bosses are expecting. And when executives do identify several answers, leaders should take the trouble to review and comment in a positive manner, rather than just saying NO. It is easy to say NO, but please provide alternatives rather than providing a “NO”; because the executives would have to guess again what you expect.

    • Sounds like you have been the receiver of NO. You are correct that a NO can shut employees down. Additional questions can help the process so that an employee may realize that there is a more optimal solution.

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