For so many, we think leaders should have all the answers. They should be the source for resolution to employee’s questions. While leaders will always be called on to resolve issues and answer questions, I propose to you that a leader’s ability to ask the right question is more important than providing answers. Let me explain.
Questions serve many purposes. We often think questions are only used to get information, but they also serve as engagement builders and are a great leadership technique in influencing others. Let’s look at each of these three main purposes of questions.
Getting Information: Leaders do this every day whether they realize it or not. However, some leaders are much more skilled than others. The skill comes from how we effectively use questions to get information. Asking open ended questions leads to more complete answers. Seldom does a yes/no response provide a full explanation that a leader needs. The who, what, when, where, and how beginnings to our questions seem insignificant, but they generate more thorough information gathering. In addition, going further and probing into deeper levels of information requires us to continue the use of these open ended questions to dig into the root cause of an action. The “5 Why Process” is a clear example of this open ended probing. We should always use these techniques in doing safety incident investigations, quality issue investigation, but also in any problem solving or information gathering session. In addition, the use of these open ended questions to gather information helps the leader validate understanding by others. No better example of this fact is in a safety training session. Rather than just ask if everyone understands the information provided, ask open ended questions to have the recipients explain what they learned. You might be surprised at what others are hearing and retaining. It might just change the way you communicate.
Engagement: I have stated many times that employee engagement starts and ends with leaders engaging. We can do quarterly one to ones. We can work on action plan items. We can read engagement books all day long, but if leaders don’t engage daily, we are wasting our time with this other stuff. One key technique a leader can use to engage employees is to ask questions. By asking questions to those being led, we convey a few things. We care about their opinions. We value their thoughts. We are genuinely interested in them. Those form the foundation for an engaging work environment. The leader doesn’t have to act on every opinion provided or response, but taking the time to ask those closest to the process really makes a lot of sense. I recall my first day as the GM in a box plant. That day was also my first day to ever see a box plant. The key was no on there ever knew that. I asked a ton of questions never letting on that I had no idea which machine was the corrugator. They probably thought I was the most engaging leader ever. Little did they know I had to do that to just figure out what to do. It worked. I learned, they were engaged, and we improved quickly.
Influence: Very simply, leadership is influence. If you want to be considered a leader, you have to influence others. We can give you a title of manager or supervisor, but we can’t name you a leader. You do that. One key way to build leadership, establish credibility, and have that influence is through asking the right questions. What you talk about the most conveys what you value the most to those you are responsible for. We could end there, but we are leaving too much on the “influence” table. By asking open ended questions on the topics we value the most, we cause others to listen, process, and respond. We put their brains in action to a much greater level than just listening to us talk. When people have to process information and respond, they are much more likely to both retain and act on the information provided. That’s really what a leader wants, for the “follower” to act differently going forward. We are in effect either changing behavior or encouraging further compliance/focus. That’s influence. People do differently because of the leadership influence. So when you are talking about important items, work in questions and really have influence.
You, as a leader, may not have all the answers, but you can start to be more effective by asking more questions. While I didn’t mention it, be sure you listen too. We might just learn some things along the way.