One of the defining and immediately identifiable characteristics of a good leader is the outsized ratio of questions they ask to answers they provide. I’ve had the privilege of working with several leaders who are exceptional question-askers. Throughout the course of our interactions, they have consistently surprised me with their uncanny ability to pose questions that allow their teams to see things from new perspectives, always resulting in a better understanding of a situation, better processes and better outcomes. I have always naturally gravitated towards these leaders – I just can’t help but want to follow them. But why?
How choosing to ask more questions helps make someone a better leader
It shows a deeply rooted curiosity
People who ask lots of questions want to know more. How does this help? When will we know if this has worked? Why should we consider this approach? How will this impact the team? Where will the information come from? Who has responsibility for the decision? By asking plenty of questions, you’ll be able to engage lots of people, many of whom are subject matter experts, about a broad range of topics. Doing so pays multiple dividends; not only are you gaining a better understanding of the situation at hand, but you are also building a network of highly informed practitioners who know you value their opinion and are open to hearing the ideas of others.
Its shows a willingness to challenge the status quo
I’d be willing to bet you’ve never heard someone who asks incisive, probing and thoughtful questions say, “But we’ve never done it that way!” when faced with the prospect of change. Likewise, people who ask more questions show that they are willing to put the status quo to the test, actively looking for ways to improve processes and procedures. Process-oriented organizations are only frustrating when the processes themselves are bad. Willingness to question and refine processes speaks to who you are as a team member and the value you bring to the organization.
It enables you (and your team) to refine your process and see the big picture
If questions aren’t asked, nothing will be revealed. Only by posing questions are we able to unpack situations, strategies and even tactics in order to gain a better understanding of the system in which we are operating. To borrow a phrase from Jim Collins and Morten Hansen, asking questions better enables you to “zoom out, then zoom in.” So often, when questions are left out of the equation, we get focused on one aspect of something and completely fail to see that it is part of a greater ecosystem, in which each part exerts force on the others. The inability to uncover this can lead to failure after failure, prolonged mediocrity and potentially organizational death.
It shows you are willing to listen
Little is more frustrating and less influential than someone obsessed with the sound of their own voice. Too often, those elevated to leadership positions are the loudest, not the best. Making bellicose proclamations might have worked well for lords in feudal systems, but fortunately, you have more upward mobility than a serf. Making statements, by and large, does not show strength or influence. It shows the need to grasp at absolutes in an environment where they rarely exist. Asking questions builds your credibility as someone who wants to listen to the ideas of others, helping them to feel both validated and empowered to offer their opinions in the pursuit of improvement and solutions.
The next time you are in a working meeting, make note of the ratio of questions you ask to answers you give. Then, at your next meeting, increase that ratio – ask more questions. Continue to ask more questions over the course of 3 or 4 meetings. As you do, you’ll begin to see people become more willing to share their ideas. Information that had previously remained hidden will be uncovered. Collaboration outside of the meetings will improve. And your credibility as a leader will increase.