#BuildingTomorrow: Leadership by asking Questions

By Aditya Mishra | January 9, 2021

Our education system trains us to give answers to questions. Rarely we are encouraged to ask questions. No school teaches us how to ask questions. Seniors are expected to know all the answers and we are expected to follow their instructions, guidance and inputs. If the desired results do not come about, it is concluded that the execution was tardy, not the instruction. These beliefs worked well in the 70s and 80s possibly, not in the time when businesses and societies are evolving faster than ever imagined in the past. Parents, teachers, bosses and elders do not know the answers to the situations we encounter each day and the opportunities that exist before us. Hence, someone has rightly said, Part of being successful is about asking questions and listening to the answers.”

What questions do bosses ask?

Bosses review performance and scan the external market. They want to influence their team members to make changes and improve the results. Sometimes, we notice, they speak up, advise their team members what to do and show impatience when the results get delayed. They operate in the way their bosses behaved with them, their parents pushed them into action and their teachers chided them when the results were below par. Times have changed – the situations of today are different from what they were five years ago or ten years ago. Hence, the solutions should be different!
Haven’t we seen bosses criticising the results and raising tensions? Their intentions are good, but what results do we see? We see the team members getting defensive, some of them engaging in a verbal duel and most often, they feel slighted and attacked. They do not feel motivated to follow the advice of the boss, even if the advice is sound and practical.
Instead, the bosses need to ask questions in a way that the feathers aren’t ruffled and the status quo is challenged. The team members need to feel consulted, own up the tasks with greater responsibility, innovate and implement the new ways.

Why don’t bosses ask questions?

It is easy for human beings to do what they have been doing for long. It is a matter of habit right from childhood to follow the instructions and carry them out. We have seen from our childhood that the elders or people with higher responsibility advise and instruct. It is expected that they know what is right. If people in positions of power, authority and responsibility are unsure of something, they do not admit their ignorance and unclarity.
They feel vulnerable and fear that they will be disrespected, slighted and ignored by their team members. They show off the image of a strong man. This becomes deeply ingrained in people’s minds and become a part of their daily lives. The trouble with this approach is that their knowledge, insights and hence, the advice may be irrelevant, suboptimal or counter-productive in today’s time.
Bosses need to know when they need to be directive and when they need to be consultative.

What questions must they ask?

There are situations when we need to identify opportunities, size them up, explore new directions, design new products or services, develop value propositions, solve a customer problem, overcome barriers, institute new methods or processes in the team. In all of these cases, bosses cannot be directive to explore solutions. They need to ask valuable questions because they do not know all. They need to ask questions like what unmet needs of our customers can provide us with the foundation for starting a new line of business, how to leverage the resources of any third party to fulfil our goals, how can we introduce a specialized or personalised layer of offering on our standard offering in order to raise margins and the like.
However, there are situations where the strategy is known, goals are clear, methods have been well-established and the challenge is to keep steering the ship forward overcoming the problems which prop up on the way. In these situations, bosses can take a directive or instructive style. In these cases, they need to ensure that the questions are such that the members do not get pushed to a defensive corner and lose hope. The questioning has to be exploratory such as, what is stopping us from rigorous execution and what needs to happen for us to bridge the gap.
As an adage goes, “He who asks a question remains a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask remains a fool forever.” Leaders have to learn to ask questions and evolve answers rather than taking up a position that they know-it-all and dish out the solutions themselves.