It’s humbling to ask questions. After all, the moment that you ask a question is the moment you reveal what you don’t know. To some, asking questions is a death-blow to their ego, while to others, it’s a stepping stone to clarity. In fact, during research for their book The Innovator’s DNA, the authors discovered that the strongest leaders (and the people destined for the C-suite) asked questions because they were humble enough to acknowledge they didn’t know everything and confident enough to admit it.
The fact is, the most influential leaders realize that their questions are more powerful than their answers because questions shed light on two important things:
1. What’s important to you
2. What’s on your mind
As a direct report, when you know what’s important to your manager and what he or she is thinking then you also know what youneed to do to produce the right type of work for him or her and for your team.
Here are six questions great leaders ask their teams:
1. What does success look like?
This is a simple question you can use to clarify and align efforts. Miscommunication amounts to a $62.4 million dollar loss for large companies and a $420,000 loss for smaller companies, so it pays to get on the same page right from the outset. Also, “check-in” frequently to ensure everybody’s still heading in the right direction.
2. What’s holding us back?
This is great for identifying the one obstacle standing between the team and a decision. Once you identify what’s in your way then you’ll have a better idea as to the courses of action you can take to overcome it.
3. Who has experience with this?
The only time reinventing the wheel actually makes sense is when the wheel turns out better than before, which isn’t easy to do given that a circle is a circle. Keep in mind that people speak up (or remain quiet) based on the environment you create. Not everybody will automatically chime in when they have something to say, which is why it’s up to the leader to set the right environment for those discussions (and questions) to occur.
4. What’s the climate here?
This is a great question because it opens the door for candor. I was asked last week, “What’s one thing that you see business teams doing wrong?” My answer: candor. They lack candor. Candor is a business imperative because you can’t move forward without it. In their book The Loyalist Team, the authors (a team of four) share their insights about what makes high-performing teams sustain their greatness. After working with thousands of teams across six continents, the authors concluded that “individuals on these teams are skilled, accomplished, and driven, but what sets them apart is that they trust, challenge, and push one another to exceed expectations.” And you build trust through candor.
5. What if this setback is really an opportunity in disguise?
A setback could be anything. Maybe a sales team didn’t hit their numbers for the quarter, or maybe a product launch missed its launch date (and subsequent launch party). More than anything though, a setback represents change—a difference between what you expected to happen and what actually occurred. So, instead of wallowing in it, try finding the opportunity. Search for patterns that might’ve indicated this setback would indeed happen and study them so you’re better prepared next time. This is the main purpose of conducting after action reviews—to learn as a team what works, what doesn’t and why.
6. What hasn’t been achieved yet?
The natural follow-up to this question is “How might we?” Every new innovation stems from curiosity. Take Polaroid, for instance, who created instant film after a three-year-old asked, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?” Questions help people organize their thinking around that which they don’t know yet.
Questions build leadership capacity because they help people make their own decisions, not to mention build the psychological safety needed to ask deeper questions. The bottom line: if you want a better answer, ask a better question.