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Better questions bring better answers

Columnist Dave Conrad says getting the whole team involved brings forth questions that no one person can think up all alone.

Ask Dave - Dave Conrad column mug
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Dear Dave,

My company is in the midst of a crisis. I think that a big part of our problem is the fact that our leadership is afraid and unable to ask the tough questions that must be asked. When my fellow managers and I listen to company leaders explain why we are in tough times it doesn’t seem like they have a good grasp of the reasons. We all want to fight our way through our downturn, but we need to hear our leaders be honest and, especially, be more analytical and strategic, so we know where and how to begin. Am I right?

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— S

Dear S,

I may not be telling you anything new, but your leaders need to revisit and polish up on an overlooked skill: inquiry (asking questions). I’ve often seen leaders assume that they knew what was going on, when they did not and all employees knew it – and that kind of approach erodes trust, especially at times when so much is vastly uncertain.

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I believe that if you think you have all the answers to all important questions – before you ask them – this suggests that you are either clueless and you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing, or that you are lying and saying anything at any time, because you don’t want others to think that you “know nothing.” In either case, the outlook is not good.

Rather than using conventional ways of getting up to speed, such as watching a news-source on TV, leaders should “get out there and mingle” and ask questions of the people that can provide truthful and beneficial answers. “Probing Leadership” isn't simply about asking more questions; it's about asking better questions of the right people at the right times. I think smart leaders convey that they don’t have the all the answers, and they need help from others to find them.

Research has shown that expressing a vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. In fact, if you can learn to ask questions well, it can help you connect with others. Questions also invite collaboration and more “thinking together.” As one leadership expert puts it, “None of us is as smart as all of is.”

Ask big questions

To be clear: I’m not saying you should ask pointed, unrealistic questions that put others on the spot, like “How can you deliver 10% higher productivity by next week?” or “Will you cut costs by a third by Friday?” The kinds of questions leaders need to ask are those that invite people to come together to explore (dream together) major – even numerous smaller – new opportunities that your organization hasn’t even identified yet. Here are two examples:

Possibilities: What are some opportunities that could create much more value – and profits – than we have delivered in the past? This question asks employees to conger up new innovations, new ways of doing business, and new ways of working as a team to deliver results that most people (teams, individuals, and managers) would ordinarily deliver. Most often, good questions will challenge people to dig deep for answers to problems that no one thought was possible.

Customers: What are emerging unmet needs of our customers that could provide the foundation for new ways of doing business? Only bold companies would approach their customers with questions that basically ask, “How can we change to better serve your needs?” I am reminded of something I learned years ago when I was facing my customers: Instead of my asking, “What do you need?” I was taught to ask, “How can I help you?” It’s amazing how changing a few words will entirely change the ways you can serve your customers and do more business with them.

It is crucial that your leaders ask questions that invite collaboration. Convince your leaders to ask those tough, probing questions that they do not want to ask – but they must, so they can figure out a way out of the current mess. Anxiety can run high in volatile times, and by asking these kinds of questions you can help employees and other stakeholders overcome some of their fears while increasing the likelihood of success. By helping people focus on important and implementable actions they can make together, the vital questions they and you can ask provides a calming effect during a crisis.

By asking better and truly helpful questions, you communicate the fact that questioning (research) is important and the only way to get a lay of the land, while thinking deeply about remedies and results, which leads to a culture of learning and the identification of opportunities.

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And it will help you to erase your fear that questioning will be seen as a sign of weakness.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu . Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.

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