One of the things I’ve written—and others have, as well—is that it’s important for leaders to ask questions. But it’s also important that leaders ask the right kind of questions. In this post, which ran recently on the Harvard Business Review site, I list five questions that, when asked by leaders, can actually do more harm than good.
Questioning is undoubtedly a valuable leadership tool. Asking the right questions can help business leaders to anticipate changes, seize opportunities, and move their organizations in new directions.
But how you question is critical. Questions can be great for engaging and motivating people , but they can just as easily be used to confront or blame, and can shift the mood from positive to negative. “We live in the world our questions create,” says David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and a pioneer of “Appreciative Inquiry,” which holds that questions focusing on strengths and using positive language are far more useful to organizations than questions with a negative focus.
So what are some specific questions to avoid? Based on conversations with Cooperrider and several other leadership experts for my recent book, here are five examples of very common questions leaders may ask that can have the unintended effect of leading people in the wrong direction. With simple tweaks, the same questions can be used to engage people, rather than discourage them.
“What’s the problem?”
Company leaders may often find themselves asking this question or some variation of it. “What’s the problem, what’s going wrong, what is broken, what is our biggest threat — that is, unfortunately, the starting point of 80 percent of meetings in management,” Cooperrider says. But he maintains that if a company leader asks questions that are focused on problems and weaknesses, then the organization overall will tend to be fixated on that — rather than focusing on strengths and opportunities. Instead of inquiring about what’s gone wrong or focusing on “the problem,” it’s better to use positive questions geared to leveraging strengths and achieving goals: What are we doing well and how might we build upon that? What is the ideal outcome and how do we get closer to that?
“Whose fault is it?”
This question focuses attention on finding a scapegoat when in reality, there is usually plenty of blame to go around for any failure or problem. Keith Yamashita of the SY Partners consultancy says that when leaders ask about fault, they’re often trying to shift blame away from themselves. A better approach would be to ask, How can we work together to shore up any weaknesses? That identifies weak links and areas in need of improvement without focusing too much on blame.
“Why don’t you do it this way?”
This question may seem like a mere suggestion, but when asked by a leader, it’s truly a leading question — a way of imposing your ways on others. (Even worse: When this question is asked after the fact, as in Why didn’t you do it this way? Now it’s also second-guessing.) The leadership expert Mary Jo Asmus with Aspire Collaborative Services says, “Asking leading questions such as How about if you do it this way? is just a stealth form of control.” She maintains that if a leader has hired well, he/she “shouldn’t have to control how the work gets done.” Better to allow people to figure out their own ideas and approaches, though you can sometimes help them along by asking, How were you thinking of doing it? What do you have in mind?
“Haven’t we tried this already?”
Another, equally bad way of asking this is, Why do you think this would work when it hasn’t worked before? It’s not that a leader shouldn’t raise questions about proposed strategies — especially if something similar has been tried previously — but the tone is important. Phil Kessler of Vistage International, a leadership group for chief executives, points out that this version of the question comes off as condescending and even defeatist. It seems to suggest that everything has been thought of already, and that because something was tried once and didn’t work, it should never be considered again. This fails to recognize that some ideas may have come up short in the past because of bad timing or poor execution, not because the idea itself was wrong. Better to ask, If we tried this now, what would be different this time — and how might that change the results?
“What’s our iPad?”
The consultant Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates notes that some version of this question tends to be asked when a panicked boss reacts to a competitor introducing a hot new product. The leader turns to his or her staff and asks, in effect, Why haven’t you come up with something like that? Get cracking! The problem is, this question is leading people to be followers—to think that their job is to imitate what the other guy is doing, as quickly as possible. Rather than put it in those imitative terms, it’s better to ask questions like: Why is our competitor having success with this product? What need is it satisfying? How might we use our particular strengths to do an even better job of meeting customers’ needs?
Looking beyond this list of specific questions, there are other tests you can use to assess whether the question on the tip of your tongue is a good one. In general, a leader should avoid questions “asked in a spirit of advocacy instead of inquiry,” says Tim Ogilvie of the management consultancy Peer Insight. Steer clear of questions “that come across like a parent talking to a child,” says Vistage’s Kessler. And lastly, Dan Rockwell of the blog Leadership Freak adds,
“Never ask a question if you don’t want an answer.”