Leadership Communication: The Power Behind Leading with Questions Rather than Answers

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We’ll start this post with a question:

Who knows more, the person asking the question, or the person to whom the question is being asked?

Just about any person asked that question will reply that the person who knows more is the one being asked. The reasoning behind this is that is someone is asking a question, they are lacking the knowledge that they require and are requesting that knowledge from someone else—someone more knowledgable than they.

And a lot of the time that might be true. But, not always.

Your teachers in school asked you a lot of questions — but that wasn’t because they didn’t know the answers.

A problem-curious leader might choose to ask a question rather than give an answer to any given problem.

The Power Behind Asking Questions

Asking Questions of Others Empowers

I know, I know, “empower” is an overused word. It’s relevant here through.

“When the boss asks for a subordinate’s ideas, he sends the message that they are good — perhaps better than his. The individual gains confidence and becomes more competent.”

Those are the words of Michael J. Marquardt, author of Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

Marquardt’s point is that when a person’s boss defers to them for help, they are flattered. They feel more confident as a result of a person in a higher workplace position than they asking for their expertise or advice. Why would a leader do this? Because when your team consists of confident and empowered individuals you all benefit—and the company certainly does.

Additionally, if you can effectively increase a team member’s confidence he or she will probably stop defaulting to asking you questions and will trust their own judgement more. Sometimes questions asked are more about affirming a stance than they are about not knowing the answer. While this type of communication isn’t bad per se, your team will get more done at a faster rate when individuals feel empowered (there’s that word again) to follow their own judgement without defaulting to you for backup.

Questions Develop Problem Solvers

Problem solving is a skill. It comes more naturally to some people than others, but it is a skill that can be trained. When a leader asks questions, he or she is training the recipient to think strategically and develop that valued problem-solver mindset. That’s why your teacher never just gave you the answer if you didn’t get to it immediately — but rather gave you a slew of clues.

In the workspace this problem-solving brain concept goes even further. If you and a colleague regularly sit down and thrash out an answer to something together, your combined brainpower takes on a whole new life of its own. In the team situation you are developing a style of “group think” that in essence is a practiced mode of thinking together and learning from one another to build on solutions rather than treat them as end points.

In the short term, the two minds together might come up with a superior answer than just the leader would have done. In the long term, the training pays off as a more confident and critically thinking employee develops.

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