I read an interesting article in Fast Company this morning. Have you ever wondered why adults are so bad at asking questions? Everyone who’s been around a 2 year old, knows how much children love to ask questions. “Why?” “What’s that?” It’s how they learn and they instinctively do it. But, we go to school and we’re afraid to ask ‘the stupid question’ because, well, kids are mean, and they make you feel stupid if you don’t know something. It continues throughout our upbringing, listen to lectures in college, do what you’re told at work, and so on. As we mature, I believe the ability to question is driven out of us by fear and embarrassment. How many times has a presenter asked “Are there any questions?” and the room is silent?
But, there is good news. You can relearn how to ask questions! Albert Einstein said, “If I needed to solve a problem, I would spend 99% of the time asking questions, and 1% to solve the problem”. This is the growing philosophy behind great leadership. Leaders don’t know everything, and they shouldn’t be expected to. There is a wealth of knowledge amongst their staff, and good leaders know how to make full use of that.
Here’s the typical exchange between an inexperienced leader and subordinate. The subordinate approaches the leader’s door with a question. The leader provides the answer and the subordinate goes away. How much learning took place there? How much development occurred on the part of the subordinate?
Let’s look at the same scenario using questions. The subordinate approaches with his question. Instead of telling, the leader asks “What ideas do you have about this?” Ah! Instead of just providing the answer, the leader is helping the subordinate develop his own theories and solutions. They might talk back and forth, further developing the subordinate’s ideas, and in the end, the leader encourages the subordinate to give his ideas a try. Yes, take a risk and see what happens. If failure ensues, well, good. That’s where real learning can happen. But support him, debrief with him, help him come up with new solutions.
How different these two scenarios are! In the first, the leader firmly retains control and knowledge, eking it out in dribs and drabs only when requested, keeping the subordinate dependent upon her knowledge. In the latter, both parties are learning. The subordinate is learning by taking chances and developing his own solutions. The leader is learning new knowledge by hearing what the subordinate came up with. She is also learning to grow as a leader, listening to, and trusting her team.
In these days of growing angst over employee engagement and desire for great leadership, how much can this type of interchange shake things up? Think about any great boss you’ve ever had, and I’ll bet he/she was great at asking questions. So, let’s be curious, ask questions, and trust others to come up with great ideas of their own.
As a senior action learning coach, Andrea teaches action learning at Universities and for the World Institute for Action Learning. She also coaches teams to find innovative solutions to today's complex problems while building leadership skills, improving team dynamics, and increasing personal awareness. Previous clients include Microsoft, Goodwill Industries International, and the National Park Service.
Andrea's passion is to see you achieve your professional dreams. Whether you are a corporate leader seeking leadership development for your employees or an individual seeking guidance in building your career or preparing for retirement, she will coach you to success.