So Glad you Asked…

By Kevin DeNoia
A client asked me the other day “what separates truly great leaders from the rest of the pack”, for me the answer is easy, it’s their ability to ask great questions. When we teach leaders how to coach their staff or manage conflict within their teams, the number one skill we focus on is inquiry, asking questions.

So what is a great inquiry? It’s the ability to ask questions that fully focus on learning new information. Too often, we simply don’t ask questions and assume our truth is the only truth. But even when we do ask questions, we often do so with an expectation of how others will respond. When we do this, we’re not truly demonstrating interest in new information and alternative perspectives.

It’s simple to advise a manager to “just ask open questions” (i.e., questions starting with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘how’ or ‘why’ rather than closed questions starting with ‘do you, don’t you, shouldn’t you, isn’t that) and while that’s a good start, it’s not enough to shift your mindset.

When asking an open question, you must enter the discussion fully prepared to receive information that may be contrary to what you believe (or hope to be true). You must be open to receiving the information you hear, and incorporating new learnings into your pool of data. Then you must be willing to re-evaluate your decisions or beliefs with that new information now available. 

This means avoiding the trap of #confirmation bias that occurs when you willingly disregard information that contradicts your existing beliefs.  Truly using new information to see new perspectives means a readiness to let go of a firmly held belief and getting comfortable with being ‘wrong’.  The purpose of questions is to learn. The purpose of learning is to improve. The only way that happens is by admitting what you don’t know, acknowledging your mistakes and being passionate about seeking new information that may change your perspectives, opinions and approaches.

This requires humility, openness, and a constant desire for growth. It means allowing yourself to be corrected (especially by those who may be subordinate to you), a willingness to apologize and the strength of identity to always admit that no matter how experienced you are and how much you know, someone will always have information or a perspective that you don’t. That is the mindset that keeps on a lifelong path of leadership and professional growth.

I’m always looking for great reads and highly recommend checking out HBR’s recap of management tips of the year. In it, the author highlights John Hagel III book “Good Leadership Is About Asking Good Questions” reminding leaders to lead with questions, not with answers.

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