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Monday, May 19, 2014

Talk Less, Listen More: Why You Should Be Asking Questions

What if you could develop a leadership skill that was simple, inexpensive and enabled you to get more done by doing less? Would you be interested? The ability to ask good questions is quite possibly one of the most effective and under-utilized leadership competencies. This seemingly simple but surprisingly difficult skill will not only help you become more effective at managing and developing others, it can contribute to improved problem solving, better decision making and increased capacity for organizational learning—all of which add to increased organizational agility.



Like many leadership competencies, asking good questions is harder than it sounds. Why? It’s likely that your problem-solving ability and business expertise have propelled you upward in your career. You have been rewarded for providing answers and scoring wins for your organization. One of the toughest developmental challenges for someone advancing up the organization is to shift from being the “go-to person” to getting things done through others.

In fact, one of the most frequent complaints I encounter comes from managers who are frustrated by employees who constantly come to them for help with problems that they believe the employee should be able to handle on their own. A common refrain goes like this, “I have no time to get my work done. He constantly comes to me with problems that he should be able to solve. That’s why I gave him this job. What am I paying him for anyway?”

Generally, there’s a fairly obvious reason this happens. When you always provide answers you teach people to come to you for help. Other than the consideration of your available time, there’s a bigger reason you should be concerned about this. In an expanded managerial role you must learn to transition from star problem solver into a coach and a developer of others. Problem solving is a management skill, while getting things done through others is a leadership skill.

Knowing you need to ask questions is just the beginning. How you ask questions is crucial. If your questioning makes others feel confronted rather than supported, you won’t get the promised end result. What we’re addressing here is intention. Intention is the difference between coaching and coercing. Behind the coaching process is the simple but essential belief that while each of us has an inner wisdom that can give us the guidance and understanding we need, it is often obscured by inner and outer interference. Good coaching helps individuals work through this interference.

To become an effective coach, you have to make sure your intentions are not coercive. You must:
  • Remember you’re trying to help the person being coached to understand the situation, not fix it for them.
  • Make sure you’re not just trying to make yourself look good. Good coaches never forget that the goal is for the team (the organization) to win, not to be the star player.
  • Make sure you’re not trying to make the person being coached understand your perception of the problem. As the coach, you must keep in mind that your job is to ask the questions; their job is to come up with the answers.
  • Be open to questioning your own assumptions and beliefs.
  • Recognize when a question is not a question but advice or suggestion disguised as a question. Ask clarifying not leading questions.

While it may be difficult, learning the art of asking good questions is definitely worth the effort required. Mastering this highly under-utilized leadership skill will not only help you become more effective at managing and developing others. The biggest payoff may be the new time you find now that your employees can solve problems and make decisions without you holding their hand. 

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