by Karen Smith, MBA, PMP

The right question, asked at the right time, in the right way, to the right person … can have rippling effects on an organization. Think how different things would be for General Motors and its customers had a questioning culture been adopted years ago.

The power of questions – your questions – can either make or break your career. Questions have the power to create teams in a collaborative way … or crumble them. They are, in part, a good reason why you may be able to recover from a hostage situation. Questions can even help you win over a sticky situation at home.

Why are some of us not skilled in the art of asking questions, much less asking the right questions?

Do you remember when you were three years old when you were told to “stop asking questions and do as you are told”; when in childhood you were told that a particular question “was inappropriate”; or when in a job they instilled a culture of “if it ain’t broke, don’t break it”? Corporate culture pressures us into believing that we must have all the answers as leaders. Having all the answers is simply unreasonable and unattainable. From Leading with Questions to Wisdom of Crowds to other noteworthy sources, it has been proven that collaboration and variety help make better decisions and help move organizations forward together.

Fear sets in where we no longer ask the questions we want, which results in us being out of practice in asking great questions. Fear also prevents us from asking questions where the answers are ones 1) we won’t like, 2) where “we” are shown as the problem, or 3) that indicate that a project or effort has gone awry. Why do these fears seem real to you? In one word: Ego. The act of courage is the willingness to take action by asking questions that might challenge – or destroy – current perceptions and patterns.

It’s time that this cycle of suppressing questions stopped and that you became an even better leader by asking the right questions, and becoming comfortable with this process for the long term. The best news: Giving up control in exchange for freedom and creativity and sharing the burden of responsibility is the outcome of the questioning leader.

Several months ago, I shared with you some insights on the Behavioral Stairway Model that was developed by the FBI’s hostage negotiation unit. Additionally, I outlined the five steps to getting someone else to see your point of view and change what they’re doing. To recap, here are the five progressive steps:

  1. Active Listening
  2. Empathy
  3. Rapport
  4. Influence
  5. Behavioral Change

In particular, a key stepping stone to Number One’s success (Active Listening) is asking the right questions. Those in leadership positions can make real change happen based on the questions they ask, how they ask them and when they ask them. By asking the right questions, leaders can begin to share the responsibility and burden of leadership with their followers, thereby increasing the capacity and performance of the organization. Effective questions are those that accomplish their purpose, as well as build a positive relationship between the questioner and the person being questioned, creating a better working relationship among problem-solvers.

To get proficient at the skill (and it’s definitely a skill – a skill that can be learned, but one that few people can tout), it takes intent and practice. That’s it.

Enter Number Two: Empathy. It’s great that you know your side of the argument or case and can undeniably state the details on why you’ve made up your mind on this particular point. However, if you are unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, you have no ground in which to stand. You need to understand the other side and be able to feel that same conviction.

The Power of the Right Question | Culture

Asking the right questions reduces the need to have all the answers. One of the best questions to ask is, “Why do we do it this way?” What you’ll probably find out is that there’s a nonsensical, outdated answer out there. A good example of this is from Apple. While years ago most companies heard that people desired to have more music available to them at any point in time, most companies were contemplating making a larger CD or a CD that holds more music. Instead Apple took the ingenious route of creating the iPod which provided more music on a smaller, handheld and on-the-go device. Revolutionary.

John F. Kennedy asked a different kind of question. He flipped the “we’ve always done it this way” statement to “think about things differently to improve more than just yourself.” In other words, he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Working towards the right cultural mindset is encouraged from the top down. Wal-Mart encourages its employees to look for things that don’t seem right and ask questions. Their mantra? ETDT: Eliminate the Dumb Things. When I worked in American Airlines, the company had a suggestion program where employees could question nearly everything. Ideas and suggestions were constantly encouraged by senior management and, as appropriate, were rewarded. We learned that there was no downside in making a company stronger – e.g., personal payout, recognition, promotion, better work environment, less hours wasted, less overtime, or less rework. It’s all good.

In our next article, we’ll talk about why it’s easier to avoid asking questions, and we’ll provide tips and insights for creating an inquisitive culture that will add value to your organization.

What questions do you ask on a regular basis? What could you change, like JFK, by asking them differently?

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