Leading through Inquiry: Do Ask, Don’t Tell

How can leaders and managers bring out the best in their people? With today’s interdependent work teams it’s not enough to give instructions about how to do jobs. More is required for leaders who wish to engage collaborative partnerships for high performance.

“Carpenters have hammers, dentists have picks, and physicians have stethoscopes. It is hard to envision any of these people working in their chosen fields without their basic set of tools. Managers, too, have a basic set of tools: questions.” ~ Terry J. Fadem, The Art of Asking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers (FT Press, 2008)

Good communication is a hallmark of healthy organizations, but it’s often founded on the belief that employees thrive when given clear directions. In today’s increasingly complex organizations, it’s not enough to tell people what to do.  Effective communication encourages two-way conversations that traverse hierarchies and power differentials. Without this, leaders create high-risk environments.  Leaders who ask evocative questions instead of giving instructions set the stage for better communication, employee engagement and high performance, especially when they’re charged with supervising knowledge workers.

Expert reviewers have frequently found that after airplane crashes, chemical and nuclear accidents, oil spills, hospital errors and cruise-ship disasters, lower-ranking employees had information that could have prevented these events or lessened their consequences. Senior managers were guilty of ignoring their subordinates and being consistently resistant to hearing bad news.

In the work I do with organizations, I’ve learned that employees often worry about upsetting their bosses, so they settle for silence—a decision that exposes their organizations to risks with potentially irreversible outcomes. This dynamic plays out in government offices, hospitals and corporations with divisions in power and status, regardless of how democratic and “fair” they claim to be.

How can you create a climate that encourages people to speak up, especially when safety is on the line? How do you convince your staff to correct you when you’re about to make a mistake?

  • Learn to ask the right questions instead of telling your staff what to do
  • Show an interest in their opinions, their ideas, and their lives
  • Asking genuine questions about a person is a prerequisite to building a relationship on trust
  • Skip leading questions, however. That’s just another form of telling
  • Ask real questions out of curiosity and learn from your people

What do you think about doing this in your work group? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here and on LinkedIn.