October 28


Leadership hack – 014 asking questions is more powerful than telling people what to do

Evidence suggest that if you tell people exactly what to do, they will be less motivated, less likely to improvise if things go wrong and you will experience poorer results – see The Human Side Of Enterprise, published in 1960!

So, if you are not going to tell people exactly what to do, how do you get them to do what you want them to do?   Socrates used debate as a vehicle for asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.  A growing number of academics and leadership practitioners propose that asking questions leads to better results than telling people what to do.  For example:

  • Keith Grint argues that you should ask questions when dealing with wicked (complex) problems, as it is only through joint exploration of the problem will solutions reveal themselves
  • There are at least two HBR articles (HBR, HBR) that suggest that asking questions is the best way to lead followers who are more technically capable than you
  • While some proponents (see Gary B. Cohen and John C. Maxwell) suggest that leaders should ask their followers questions in virtually all contexts

Even if you believe that sometimes you need to tell people exactly what do to (great examples are in an emergency or when there is a legal or regulatory reason), asking questions is still a very powerful took.  So what questions should you ask?  I have outlined my top questions below; I hope you find them useful.

  • What do you think about _________?
  • How could we do _____ differently?
  • What is stopping us do ______ or what is holding you up?
  • What does success look like?
  • Why? Why? Why? (why asked after each response)
  • If we look back and _____ failed, why did it go wrong?
  • Can you take me through your thinking?
  • How do you think this will impact ____ [wider team, group, division]?
  • How could we test/pilot this now?
  • What if there were no constraints/no rules?
  • Interesting, can you tell me more?