A Leading Question: Empowering Teams to Find the Answers They Need

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When was the last time you had an “aha” moment? Eureka experiences often start the same way — with a question. But as leaders, we tend to talk more than ask. In our eagerness to solve problems or get things done, we often jump straight to saying what we think others need to hear. 

The best leaders don’t give their teams all the answers. Instead, they ask empowering questions to help teams reach their own “aha” moments that can spark new ideas, better results and more rewarding experiences for everyone. 

Lead by asking questions.

Think about a time when one of your team members hit a roadblock. Was your first instinct to suggest a solution? On the surface, it might seem like the most efficient thing to do. But by giving an employee an answer rather than asking a question, we might inadvertently:

  • Cheat them out of a development opportunity
  • Miss the fresh thinking they could offer
  • Pressure ourselves to be lone problem-solvers

Neuroscience research shows how powerful this leadership technique can be. People build confidence, think more creatively and develop an increased sense of ownership when they discover their own insights. 

Among other benefits, leading by asking questions will help you:

  • Build a team of critical thinkers 
  • Foster loyalty from employees who appreciate you letting them have their own good ideas
  • Become a “multiplying leader” who gets more done by working through others
  • Generate better ideas than you would reach on your own
  • Free yourself to focus on other work

Ask the right questions.

By asking the right questions, we allow our team members to discover solutions themselves and learn from the experience. They might even leave the office by skipping down the hall. But it’s not enough to simply ask questions; they must be the right questions. It won’t work to ask loaded questions that focus on problems, such as:

  • “Why are things so far behind?”
  • “What did you do to cause this problem?”
  • “Why didn’t you anticipate this?”
  • “Don’t you know better than that?”
  • “How could you let this happen?”

These types of questions cause others to go on the defensive and shut down their thinking. Empowering questions, on the other hand, encourage others to: 

  • Find and focus on solutions
  • Think more deeply
  • Trust their own instincts
  • See the potential in any situation
  • Adopt a growth, “We can figure this out” mindset — rather than a fixed, “We’ve done all we can” attitude

Examples of empowering questions:

  • “What options come to mind?”
  • “Do you see any new possibilities?”
  • “If you could do anything in this situation, what would it be?”
  • “When you’ve solved similar problems in the past, what worked?”
  • “How can we apply those lessons now?”
  • “What is your gut instinct telling you?”
  • “What’s a good next step?”
  • “How can I help you from here?”
  • “How will our client feel once we’ve solved this problem?”
  • “How will you feel when you have found the solution?”

Establish a lead-by-questions culture.

The more that we ask great questions, the easier it becomes for others to do the same. Get the ball rolling by asking empowering questions during team meetings, and encourage your team to lead by questions within their own circles of influence.

As leaders, we sometimes need to give swift responses or provide critical solutions. But helping people think for themselves enables everyone to perform at a higher level. Your team will flourish. You’ll have more time to focus on the big picture. And your organization will generate the ideas it needs to succeed in a changing world.

Remember, you don’t always have to have the answer when you ask someone a question. Neither do they. But by getting everyone thinking, great answers will come naturally. 


photo credit: westend61

Return to Current Issue Leadership | November 2019
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