I often speak about the power of questions. I encourage and coach others to use them to more effectively, teach, mentor, and delegate. I enjoy a reputation with many colleagues and clients as someone who asks valuable questions. Yet – as we’re reminded often – like any discipline, following your own advice and behaving consistently can be a challenge. In working with two coaching clients in the same afternoon, I came face-to-face with my need to kick it up a notch when using questions to effectively drive their continued growth and evolution as managers and leaders.
One of the clients I was working with is an earnest and exceedingly well-intentioned manager seeking to more effectively develop his team members and retain them. Together we were working on how he could use questions to build on some great work he’d done laying a foundation of knowledge with a new team member. We’d been talking through the process of specific questions to ask in his next 1-on-1 meeting for about 20 minutes, when I asked the manager whether it was more effective to learn by being told or being asked. A question I figured was a no-brainer, inserted to confirm our understanding. He reacted as if I had just asked for an explanation of cold fusion. He honestly did not know how to answer. When I pushed for a response, he defaulted to “being told.”Cue loud buzzer! Oh my. “Seriously,” is all I could think. I took a deep breath and rewound our conversation. I noted my surprise at his confusion, and added that this was a great illustration of how and why questions are so essential. Had I been in telling mode, I would have continued to assume that the manager was far more comfortable with this shift in his approach with his team than he was. Fortunately, we discovered this – in time – and did some additional work that increases the likelihood of effective action and, ultimately, success.
My other client is a more senior, deep technical expert in a business-critical area. He is deeply committed to the success of his organization and passionate about the quality of their work. This has led him to struggle when working with teams that have varied levels of expertise and different drivers of success. He can come across as dogmatic when requests are made that come with complexities others don’t understand as well as he does. He’d just been in a meeting with the C-level executive he reports to and several other stakeholders discussing the timeline for a high-profile product development project he’s leading. He’d been asked to commit to a specific timeline that he felt lacked the allowance for the uncertainty and nuance his keen eye knows inevitably will be encountered. So, he basically said that the work requested couldn’t be done in any predictable manner, and then began to explain this to the group in a manner that easily could be interpreted as condescending. As he replayed the meeting, I cringed. I did so because I love what this guy stands for, I love his talent, I love his heart…and because – for goodness sake – we’ve been over this, and worked on strategies to more deftly guide people to where he needs them to be. And in just a few minutes, months of work had been undermined. In this case, our challenge is how to get him to ask himself better questions in real time, like “what are they really asking for?”; “how can I say ‘yes’ without promising something I can’t deliver”; and “what do I need to know before giving any answer beyond…’let’s talk about how we can do this…’?” He can do it when specifically scripted, but on his own he still struggles.
With those stories as reminders of the challenges of changing our behavior, AND the opportunity we have to make an impact if we incorporate good questions into our approach to management, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, and more, here are my primary notes to self:
• Check in early and often—How does that sound? How are you feeling about that? What are the benefits of this approach? What is keeping you from using it?
• Practice makes perfect (or at least better and more likely)—So, let’s talk through how you’ll have this conversation… You want to help prepare your team member to do X. You share your intent with her. What question will you ask her first? What can you ask her to guide her toward the missing item? In another scenario, you’re going to be part of a team solving complex problems. Rather than rushing to conclusions, what questions can you ask to understand how things are no,w and what led to their development before “fixing them?”
• Commit—It’s great to earn the mandate of helping to incorporate questions (or any behavior change). It’s even better to practice, so the skill is more present and there’s confidence in it. But, let’s not let it go to waste because we never get around to it’s actual use. Nailing down when, with who, and how frequently are among the most important commitments you can make, or help someone else make to ensure that you do what you intend.
By the way, good questions not only distribute learning and capability, and grow confidence in others, but they make you look smart. That’s right. I’m getting back up on the good question horse for all the right reasons, and because who doesn’t like to look a little smarter every now and again.
Jeff Lesher, Principal at entreQuest, blends his deep knowledge of organization design, human capital, and leadership with a pragmatic approach drawn from his own business experience and eQ’s philosophy to help eQ’s clients focus on their core purpose and move people effectively to action.