Asking great questions is the hallmark of a great leader. They put their opinions aside and explore what their team really needs. They rarely solve problems for their direct reports. Rather, they’re genuinely curious about how their team would resolve the issue on their own.
These behaviors broaden thinking and lead to new ideas and solutions. Moreover, leaders who are genuinely inquisitive, humble, and trust the team’s ability to excel create positive and supportive work environments that turn out results.
This isn’t just my opinion either. There is plenty of research to support that curiosity turns out team results because of these benefits:
Fewer decision-making errors
More innovation and positive changes in both creative and noncreative jobs
Reduced group conflict
More open communication and better team performance
Curiosity is not only a foundational competency for high-performing leadership, but it is also a superpower that unlocks a team’s potential. When leaders model curiosity and encourage others to do the same, they create a workplace everyone wants to be a part of.
Do you want to level up your leadership? Focus on curiosity. Here’s how.
Build Self Awareness
Look in the proverbial mirror, what are your current habits around curiosity and asking questions? It’s worth identifying your strengths and weaknesses. Consider the following:
When a direct report comes to you with a problem, do you offer suggestions on how to solve it or do you ask the direct report what they would do?
In team meetings, who does more talking, you or the team?
When you ask questions, do you intentionally ask follow-ups to get a broader perspective? Or, do you generally ask one round of questions?
The answers to these questions will point to where you need improvement. If you find yourself solving problems, doing most of the talking, or only asking one round of questions your curiosity muscle likely needs some flexing.
Ask More What and How Questions
Avoid peppering people with close-ended yes/no questions. It can feel like an interrogation and provide very little information. The types of question that elicit new ideas and creativity are open-ended and begin with What and How, (Who is good too). The objective is to build and broaden perspective and open-ended questions do that.
For example, a leader I work with would ask at the end of meetings “Does anyone have questions?” He complained that they never did. No one asked anything. I suggested he make two small changes for the next team meeting - ensure there is at least 10 minutes available for questions and instead ask “What questions do you have?”
He later told me that this approach created more conversation at the end of the meeting. Certainly, ensuring there was time helped but so did the open-ended question.
Other helpful open-ended questions include:
What is the right thing to do?
What would our supporters and critics say about this?
What would you do?
What’s the other side of the story?
How does this impact others?
Have a few of these questions ready before your next one-to-one check-in or team meeting. Take note of the differences in the conversation.
Ask Why Less
There is a nuance to asking "why". It requires the receiver of that question to not only explain but to do so by often reflecting on the past. Problem-solving and solution-oriented thinking needs to focus on the goals and future of the work. Spending time in the past is often unnecessary.
More so, the question “why” can put people in a place to justify their opinions and can set a tone of questioning judgment, which may invite defensiveness. Conversations are rarely productive, and people won’t feel empowered if defensiveness is at play.
This isn't to say you shouldn't be asking why. Just ask it less and get the information you seek through a What or How question.
Get Comfortable with Silence
People who are curious are also comfortable with silence. They are willing to let others think through their thoughts before speaking. Curious people don’t fill the space with sound (namely, of their own voice) but rather they let silence act as an essential part of the conversation.
For those that struggle with the silence, fill the void by counting in your head. For example, ask "What questions do you have?" at the end of a meeting but count 5 seconds in your head. Odds are, someone will speak up with a question.
Don’t Assume You Understand
After asking a few questions, it’s common to believe you understand the issue. This is a common pitfall for us all - we think we get it, but we don’t.
Always round out a conversation by summarizing what you heard and confirm you’ve got it right. Ask “What am I missing?” or “What gaps are there in my understanding?” This demonstrates to the other that you were really listening to them and that you’re open to hearing and learning more if needed.
Today's most effective leaders are curious. If you want to excel in your leadership, then practice asking questions (and listening). Jot down a few before every meeting and have follow-up questions handy as well. It will set you apart from the rest and help create a productive and gratifying work environment.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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