Six Ways to Improve the Way You Ask

Article by:
Gary Cohen  Author of Just Ask Leadership
Gary Cohen
Author of Just Ask Leadership

Entrepreneurs typically employ the ready, fire, aim approach to business. They learn by doing. They want to learn, and learn, and learn some more, so they wind up doing a lot. When they pause to ask questions, it's usually for their own edification, not others'. While they may still inspire coworkers to follow them—through their risk-taking, ingenuity and curiosity—they often miss out on the opportunity to truly lead others.

My friend Rick Diamond and I grew ACI, a telecommunications company, from two to 2,200 employees with an initial investment of US$4,000 dollars. Like many entrepreneurs, we fell into leadership positions because we were the ones who had the original vision. As the company grew, doubling in size roughly every two years, Rick and I couldn’t know everything about every facet of our business. Initially, we asked questions so that we could know more. But when we learned how questions engaged and motivated our co-workers, we adjusted our approach and began to ask questions that helped our co-workers take on greater responsibilities and challenges.

“Just Asking” was the cornerstone of our approach and success. We demonstrated trust in our co-workers by asking open-ended questions and allowing them to obtain the answers that worked best for them and the organization. We held them accountable for results, not for simply obeying commands.

Why, I've often wondered, do professors at business schools and leadership-training programs use questions to teach, but fail to teach their students the art of question-asking? During my time at ACI, I attended Covey Leadership, Disney Leadership Institute, Harvard Business School OPM Program and the Aspen Institute (as a Crown Fellow). Not once did I receive instruction on how to use questions as a leadership strategy.

In the process of writing Just Ask Leadership, I interviewed more than 100 leaders (CEOs, heads of non-profits, military leaders, etc.) who welcomed the opportunity to share and explore the value of questions. What follows are six question-asking tips I gathered from these exceptional leaders:

  • Don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.If you employ the Socratic Method—asking questions that lead coworkers to your answer—your co-workers will sense that your questions are just commands in disguise. Lawyers are supposed to know the answers to their questions before they ask them, leaders are not. The leader's role is to motivate others to reach the organization's vision. What would motivate you more: being asked for your opinion or being told what to do? If you're like most people, you prefer to be asked. In fact, 95 percent of the people I surveyed (leaders included) prefer to be asked questions rather than told what to do.

  • Trust your team.Many leadership programs and books suggest ways to get your team and organization to trust you. They often bypass the simplest way to build trust: by trusting others. If you demonstrate trust in your co-workers, they will, in turn, be more likely to trust you. You can demonstrate trust by asking more and commanding less. Listening demonstrates trust, too. So if you're inclined toward judgment, be sure to judge results, not people or their answers.

  • Don’t provide your answer if your co-worker is responsible for the decision.The impulse to go up the organizational ladder for answers is strong, and the impulse to provide answers to co-workers further down the ladder is similarly strong. It's hard, after all, to refrain from an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge, intellect or experience. But when you provide answers and, in essence, do others' work, you take accountability away from your co-workers. Unless you're prepared to do their work in the future, don't get in the habit of providing answers. Ask questions that help them arrive at their own answers.

  • Just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it will work for them. “You cannot step twice in the same river,” Heraclitus wrote. What you once knew to be true may not be true anymore. Even if it is true, your co-workers will be more apt to believe it if they arrive at this understanding on their own. So don't spoil their discovery— or yours. Ask and you will learn how much has changed since you held a particular position or performed a certain task.

  • What is ordinary for you may be extraordinary for them. You may forget how jazzed you were when you first completed a particular function and the exhilaration you felt for doing it your way. Don't prohibit your co-workers from having similarly extraordinary experiences. Let them do it their way. You may think you're abdicating your responsibility, but you're not. You're cultivating independence, accountability and trust. Of course, you can and should ask questions that you feel need to be answered, but demonstrate your trust and don't provide your answer.

  • Ask questions in a neutral tone.If your questions carry a sense of judgment or disapproval, they will spoil all the benefits that you gain from Just Asking. Don't let your body language or tone betray your true feelings, and get to work on those "true feelings." The more you anticipate the extraordinary, the more it tends to happen.

Entrepreneurs love to learn. These six tips will help you learn not just for yourself or the sake of learning, but for and with your co-workers. I promise you'll see a vast improvement in employee engagement, organizational alignment and bottom-line results. And remember, greatness happens when you ask! ​

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