Note to Leaders: Ask Questions!

Emmanuel Christi Das, Editor

QuestionsThe Leaders of today need to revisit a lately overlooked skill: asking questions. Experts in the top management, mostly carrying 30-40 years of experience leading different enterprises reveal that leaders assume that people look to them for answers — bold assertions that build people’s confidence in their competence. That's not true. This mindset and approach erodes trust, especially at a time when so much is manifestly uncertain.

Instead of pretending to be Mr. Know-it-all, leaders should ask powerful and inspiring questions, convey that they don’t have the answers, and solicit others’ help to find them. Industry experts who propose this approach to modern leaders are often met with the question, "Won’t it look like they don’t know what they’re doing? On the contrary, however, research has shown that expressing vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. In fact, if you can learn to ask questions well, it can help you connect with others. Thinking together can put you on the path to solving obstinate problems while sparking innovative thinking.

Shoot Impactful Questions

It doesn’t mean, you should ask pivotal questions that will put others on a spot, like “How can you deliver 10% higher productivity?” or “Are you missing anything here?” Rather, the kind of questions leaders need to ask are those that invite people to come together to explore major new opportunities that your organization hasn’t identified yet. Following are some instances:

What is that game-changing opportunity that could create much more value than we have delivered in the past?

What are some of the emerging unmet needs of our customers that could lay the foundation for an entirely new business?

How could we leverage the resources of third parties to address a broader range of the needs of our customers?

How can we shift from standardized, mass-market products and services to personalizing our products and services to the specific needs of each customer?

How do we develop supply networks that would be more flexible in responding to unanticipated disruptions in production or logistics?

Involve Everyone

Such questions invite collaboration. To get the best responses and results, do not ask them in closed board room meetings. Rather, broadcast them across your organization and even beyond it. It’s not just the CEO or MD posing a question to his people, it’s the brand reaching out to learn from its consumers. Extending the question beyond the institution to connect with expertise and perspectives from a broader set of more diverse sources will help your company learn faster.

For instance, consider Domino’s Pizza. Around 10 years ago, Domino’s was getting feedbacks from customers that they just did not like the company’s pizza. Now most organizations might have tried to hide this information or work behind the scenes to fix the problem. Domino’s Pizza surprised everyone by doing something different. They made public the feedback they were receiving and asked for suggestions on how they could improve the quality of their pies. This open, out-there type question invited an avalanche of suggestions that actually proved very helpful in improving the pizzas.

However, more than an open innovation success, the result was far more fundamental: by expressing vulnerability, Domino’s built trust with customers. Here was a company that was willing to admit their shortcomings and to ask for help in overcoming that shortfall. If more organizations were willing to ask for solutions from their customers and other stakeholders upon facing a problem, they would likely have much greater success in re-building trust.

Induce a Culture

Anxiety can soar high in sensitive times, and by asking these kinds of questions you can help people overcome some of their fears. Psychology says it that coming together with others can reduce anxiety.  That’s why they call it group therapy. And achieving actual impact can also help overcome feelings of being overwhelmed. Thus, your questions can provide a focusing and calming effect during a crisis by helping people to focus on short-term actions that they can take together.

When a leaders asks questions, he or she conveys the impression that its important to ask questions. You’ll push people to identify new opportunities and to ask for help when needed. Such behaviours lead to a culture of learning, which is crucial, since the institutions that will thrive in the future are those that encourage everyone to learn faster and rapidly further expand the value that they deliver to their stakeholders.

Leaders who ask powerful questions have the greatest success in both grabbing new opportunities and addressing unexpected challenges — and they build cultures that will carry these benefits into the future.

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