Good questions generate thought, focus, and action from the listener. They also convey respect. Is it any wonder that 95% of leaders prefer to be asked questions rather than told what to do? And yet, according to a survey I conducted, these same leaders give instructions 58% of the time rather than asking coworkers for their input.
Rather than trust their instincts, leaders ought to examine their question-asking tendencies in more detail.
Business schools teach leadership, but they don’t teach courses on question-asking. Question-asking is key to this era of specialization—where leaders can’t know everything about everyone else’s jobs. In the 21st century, it’s not possible for leaders to be know-it-alls, nor is it in their or the organization’s best interest to try. Leaders need to ask questions that move others to action and answer.
Just Ask leadership results in better vision, decision making, accountability, productivity, collaboration, and motivation. And it does so without arm twisting or raised voices.
When only one person supplies vision for an organization, it has a tendency to be myopic. Depth perception is achieved by looking at the same object from multiple vantage points. The more eyes aimed toward the object (or objective), the more likely the vision will be fully formed.
Telling others what you see isn’t ever as compelling as letting them see it for themselves. Leaders should invite coworkers to lift their eyes from their desks, and ask questions like “What would you do if time and funds were unlimited?” or “What organizational assumptions need to be challenged, especially in light of environmental changes?” The result: a broader sense of organizational vision and more buy-in from coworkers, since they will be more committed to the organization’s vision for having helped shape it.
Leaders often operate under the assumption that they are entitled to make any and every decision. It’s a vestige of “The buck stops here!” mentality and World War II era. The impulse comes from the leader’s desire to justify his salary and office, as well as the knowledge that he will be blamed for poor decisions—no matter who in the organization made them. The impulse may be compassionate also; in sharing his wisdom, the leader wishes to alleviate others’ burdens.
When leaders make decisions that ought to be made by their team members, the whole organization suffers—no matter how smart or capable the leader. Decision making slows to a crawl, for one thing. Nobody wants their decision vetoed, so even if they’re confident in their choice, they run it by the leader anyway. Some may refrain from decision making entirely, since they can get the leader to do their job for them. With so many seeking his input, the leader may have a hard time finding time to go to the bathroom, let alone do his own work.
The more decisions leaders make, the more likely they will make bad ones. They can’t know everything about every one of their coworkers’ jobs and stay abreast of new developments, especially as the organization grows. Bear in mind, too, that with decision making comes responsibility. If leaders take responsibility for their coworkers’ work, what’s the incentive for their coworkers to do so?
Leaders must resist the temptation to make others’ decisions. Instead, they should ask, “Whose decision is it?” and let job descriptions dictate the decision maker. If it’s not their decision to make, they should communicate trust in their coworkers to reach a sound decision. They should act as a resource (asking open-ended questions that provoke thought, like “What’s the biggest risk?” or “Is this the right choice for our brand?”), but under no circumstances say what they would do in their coworker’s place. That practice signals distrust and encourages coworkers to search for the leader’s solutions, not their own.
Accountability & Productivity
Unless leaders set a firm precedent, decision making will gravitate up to the highest ranking members of the organization. By passing decisions down to the appropriate party (the lowest level it can go, typically), leaders create a culture of accountability. Their coworkers know that they will be allowed to make important decisions and that they will be judged based upon the results they achieve.
With accountability comes productivity. Coworkers will take ownership of their work and strive to meet or exceed expectations. In the future, when the leader asks, “How did you achieve this result?” it will come from being happily surprised, not confused or disappointed.
Just Ask leaders hold individuals accountable for their decisions, but also encourage collaboration. Introverts may be able to draw energy from being alone, but most people don’t. They want to feel part of a team. When leaders supply answers, rather than tap the team’s collective expertise, they may miss the best answer and the opportunity to energize their coworkers.
Too many leaders think it’s about getting the right answer. It’s not. It’s about getting the answer their team can get behind. If these leaders want buy-in, they must ask the team for input. They might ask, “What needs to happen for this to succeed?” or “What haven’t we considered?”
When people aren’t motivated, it’s because they either aren’t being challenged enough or adequately compensated for their efforts. Asking can solve both problems. Questions can challenge coworkers to reach farther and develop new skills or knowledge. While leaders may not be able to offer higher monetary compensation, they can offer credit. Asking indicates a willingness to give others credit for the solutions they devise. In doing so, leaders confer trust and demonstrate interest in their coworkers’ development.
If leaders insist upon doing everything their way, they will always get the same (uninspired) results. That’s because the risks to coworkers—of trying their own, creative approach—outweigh the potential benefits.
Leaders should convey to coworkers that the risks are worth it. They should ask, “What’s your recommendation and why?” or “What would work best for you?” and give coworkers the chance to learn from failure and receive full credit for each success.