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Leadership Thought #221 – Ask Better Questions

September 28, 2011

Typically, it is our questions not just our answers that define us.

A weakness I often see in leaders is a tendency to rush to solutions.  They tend to dominate most discussions with answers rather than stimulating discussion through questions.  The problem is that no matter how smart and capable you are, you will always be limited by your own thinking and life experience.  In addition, if you create an environment where everyone looks to you for answers, then you will hinder the growth and development of your employees and enable mediocre effort.

I always see two traits in exceptional leaders. One is an above-average ability to listen to what someone else is saying. The second is a great aptitude for asking follow-up questions.  The best leaders intuitively know that success most often lies in identifying and asking the right questions rather than jumping to quick conclusions based on personal hunches or faulty assumptions.  You never lead a high performing company by using “seat of the pants” or “gut level” decision making.  A business is only as strong as its collective ability to make sense of, and act on, reality.

Asking good questions doesn’t come easily to everyone.  Sadly, our educational system prefers memorization and force-feeding information over Socratic dialogue.  We build and reward confidence in “knowing” rather than “learning.”   However, young children from an early age understand the importance of the word “why.”  Every parent will tell you that this can get a bit tiresome at times, but it is just young minds trying to make sense of the world and understand how it works.  They are not burdened with the belief that they should already know everything.

Whatever role you have in your organization, I encourage you to make a concerted effort to ask better questions.  Don’t take intellectual shortcuts or cover up a lack of knowledge with simple head nodding and acquiescence.   Don’t let your pride or ego get in the way of fully understanding what you need to know to be successful in your role.  Never allow yourself to get to the point where you think you know it all because you don’t and never will.   Make it a habit to learn from other people by asking them what they think and listening to their response.  Leaders will inevitably have to take responsibility for making the “big” decisions, but they should only do so after consulting with and learning from others affected by the decision.