The smart, aware executive today is doing something different. He or she is asking questions. Almost like leading itself, “asking” has different techniques and styles. Readers will learn which ones are right and the best fit for them in this article.

Questions are the answer

Company leaders today face new and increasingly complex problems. Most of these problems are intractable, if not, in the end, problems without real, lasting solutions. It is an extremely frustrating situation for today’s leaders, who are accustomed to finding answers and whose ability to find the right answers got most of them into leadership positions in the first place.

This conundrum leaves leaders with two options: They can try to keep abreast of every issue and make the best possible decision, or they can start to ask more questions.

“Just Ask” leadership

Business schools don’t teach courses on question asking, so leaders typically don’t study and analyze questions the way they would a quarterly report or a performance review.

The devaluing of questions can be attributed, in large part, to our educational system. During the first and second industrial revolution, when our educational system was designed, we trained our children to be factory workers. Anything the worker needed to know beyond that education could be learned on the job, from the manager. In turn, the manager was responsible for mentoring, coaching, or developing those employees that showed interest, ability, and tenacity. The worker rarely knew more than their boss about how the business worked, since the boss had held and succeeded in most key jobs on his or her way up the organization.

The Wharton School of Business opened in 1881 and, with a Masters of Business and Administration, graduates could jump past the factory floor right into management. But even with this development, those at the top of the organization usually had more knowledge than those underneath. The same can’t be said now, at least with any degree of certainty. Technology has put knowledge in the hands of anyone with access to a computer (approximately 76 percent of the U.S. population).

In the 21st century, it’s not possible for leaders to be know-it-alls, nor is it in their or the organization’s best interest to try. Leaders need to ask questions that move others to action and answers.

The employees that work for you today either know more than you do about their job or at least they should know more than you. As you move up the ranks of an organization or migrate up the ranks by job transfer, you will end up leading people that do things you cannot possibly understand. Rather than using a conventional way of getting up to speed, say reading extensively, leaders should use questions to increase others’ alignment, engagement, and accountability.

“Just Ask” Leadership isn’t simply about asking more questions; it’s about asking more and better questions. “Just Ask” leaders are aware of the full range of options, their own question-asking proclivities, and the ways in which they can and ought to trust members of their team.

Moving from knowing to not knowing

One of the most difficult challenges you have as a leader is to accept that you may not know what is right, or best, for most situations. You’re accustomed to having the right answers, so it’s hard to let go of the answer-providing habit. However, it’s also important to recognize how much and how fast things change. Even if you’ve spent your entire career with the same organization, it was nearly impossible to have kept up with all the changes. There are different players, different scales and different competing environments. The answers you knew to be true or the best might not even be relevant anymore.

Just Ask leaders are comfortable with Not Knowing. When they ask a question, it’s because they are genuinely interested in learning the answer—both in how it meets their expectations and how it diverges.

Just Ask leadership is not built around the Socratic Method. Plato suggests that Socrates did not know the answers to the questions he asked. I never bought that argument, nor should you. If you have been using this questioning method at work, please do yourself a favor and stop. Many smart employees can see right through it as just another a technique. They do not like playing cat and mouse with you. If you know the answer that you want them to arrive at, tell it to them. Bear in mind, though, that it’s generally more advantageous to doubt that you know the answer and to ASK.

Asking allows others to engage in independent and creative thought. It promotes accountability when your team members are held responsible for their decisions. And your team members will be more engaged in the outcome if they have a hand in decision-making. Keep in mind that if you provide the answer (even if it’s the best one or the one they would have arrived at eventually), team members might not execute the solution as well as they would if they owned the decision. Exceptional leaders today swallow their egos and ask. That’s because exceptional leaders realize that leadership comes from developing others’ egos, not their own.

History is not always a good teacher

What we believe to be the truth is often a product of having a bias. There are five biases that can unduly influence leadership and decision-making:

  1. Negative bias: When you have a negative experience, it has a larger impact on your memory and leads you to believe that certain roads are to be avoided, to a greater degree, than a quantitative analysis would demonstrate.
  2. Frequency bias: When you hear or see something repeatedly over time, you will be more inclined to believe it.
  3. Recent Bias: When making a decision, something you learned just recently will often carry more weight than information you learned a while ago.
  4. Attachment bias: Leaders can very easily become overly conservative and avoid making the right decision, simply because they don’t want to disrupt the status quo, which they helped achieve.
  5. Escalation bias: When you start down a path, you look for evidence to support your direction and at your peril, choose to ignore warning signs.

While a “Not Knowing” approach can help eliminate many of these biases, what about the questions themselves? How might our questions be biased?

Four styles for asking questions

In studying questions—the impetus for them and the results they achieved—I identified four distinct question-asking styles: Professor, Judge, Innovator, or Director. When asking a question, leaders generally attempt to gain knowledge or move others to action, expand their perspective or evaluate what is known, and focus on the present or the future.

Focus Knowledge
Gaining Perspective
Present Time
Present Time
Gaining Perspective
Value of Style
  • Gaining knowledge
  • Expanding insight
  • Generating ideas
  • Building broad understanding
  • Analyzing and prioritizing ideas
  • Reaching decisions, agreements, or commitments
  • Focusing shared understanding
  • Exploring new directions
  • Identifying opportunities
  • Improving current methods
  • Innovating solutions
  • Rallying the team to the cause
  • Motivating the team to achieve specific goal or task
  • Implementing the plan
  • Focusing to accomplish results
When to Use
  • When needing to better understand a situation
  • When going too fast and jumping too quickly
  • When exploring new ideas
  • When promoting creativity
  • When brainstorming all potential possibilities
  • When identifying potential factors related to the issue
  • When assessing alternatives
  • When determining priorities
  • When identifying key themes
  • When refining ideas
  • When synthesizing information
  • When evaluating
  • When defining options
  • When setting direction
  • When encouraging possibilities
  • When new behavior is desired
  • When working around barriers
  • When pushing beyond status quo
  • When energizing people to reach further
  • When implementing clear goals
  • When needing to achieve specific results
  • When identifying next steps (what- who-by when)
  • When moving the team to act on a plan
  • When creating a task tension to get action moving
Business Need
  • Strategy Building
  • Negotiation Preparation
  • Decision Making
  • Performance Review/Hiring
  • Visioning
  • Motivating Employees
  • Problem Solving
  • Performance Management
What Happens If Over-Used
  • May not reach conclusions (analysis paralysis)
  • May not initiate plan
  • May stifle creative thinking missing best solution
  • May not get plan implemented
  • May change course frequently
  • May rush to action resulting in more time re-doing (“Ready- Fire-Aim” mentality)
  • May implement the wrong things well
  • May perpetrate outdated processes
Negative of Style
  • Condescending
  • Disapproving
  • Abdicate control
  • Micro manage
Sample Questions
  • What’s the goal?
  • What are your options?
  • What are the alternative choices being considered?
  • What’s the current reality?
  • What other approaches have you tried?
  • Is there another choice that hasn’t been considered yet?
  • How have you taken emotion out of the decision?
  • Whose decision is it?
  • What’s the most important consideration here?
  • Which option makes the most sense to you?
  • What are the consequences of the choices?
  • What conclusions have you reached so far?
  • Are your choices mutually exclusive?
  • What’s the biggest risk?
  • Are the risks for each alternative manageable?
  • What decision making process have used to get to the point you’re at now?
  • Have you weighed the pros and cons of each option?
  • What is the greatest possible success?
  • Are you struggling because of things that are knowable (info, facts) or unknowable?
  • Will others follow you?
  • What’s your biggest fear about making this decision?
  • What would you do if time and funds were unlimited?
  • What is your recommended way forward?
  • How could I support moving forward on that decision?
  • Is there anything I can do, add, or absolve you of that will make this easier for you to decide?
  • What does your gut tell you to do?
  • What is holding you back from making this decision?
  • What will the end result be?
  • When is a decision due?
  • Do you understand the key drivers of the outcome for the situation?
  • If you make the wrong decision is it easily reversible?
  • Is this close to a 50 – 50 decision and if so, should we flip a coin?
  • What needs to happen for that to succeed?
  • Do you feel you have my support and the support of the rest of the team?

Of course, not all leaders fall perfectly into one of the four categories. You may be a cross between a Judge and a Director or, at times, consider yourself more of a Professor. What matters is that you recognize these shifts and your proclivities, and learn how you can address any imbalances.

Knowing your predominant style can help you better frame questions, based upon the task and your goals. If you would categorize yourself as a Professor, for instance, and you’re engaging in performance reviews, you ought to put on your Judge hat and ask more Judge-style questions than might not occur to you instinctively.

It’s important to know and use questions that will help you and others achieve your respective goals. Bear in mind, though, that the same questions might not work equally well for all team members.

The Seven C’s of trust

Chances are that you don’t ask each team member the same set of questions. Based upon their skills and past experience, you customize your questions. Yet you might not be very intentional about the process—since question asking is viewed more as an art than a science.

It pays to vary the wording of questions. If you ask a team member the same questions over and over, you’re likely to wind up with the same answers—creating a frustrating cycle for everyone involved.

One of the reasons we avoid asking specific team members certain questions or hardly any questions at all is due to trust. If we don’t trust them, what’s the point of asking for their input? It’s a mistake, though, to think of trust in general terms.

I’ve identified seven aspects of trust (the 7 C’s) that may explain why your relationships with direct reports is either succeeding or failing:

  1. Capability: Has the skill and ability to do their job well
  2. Commitment: Has the level of desire and focus toward the team’s efforts
  3. Capacity: Has the time, energy, and personal management skills to complete what needs to be done well and on time
  4. Connection: Has the resources to complete the work that needs to be done
  5. Commonality: Shares interests that help build and extend the relationship
  6. Consistency: Has a strong track record of success and acts in a predictable fashion
  7. Character: Has integrity

Questions will come easily when you trust others. Often the issue of trust has little to do with the follower and more to do with the leader. Here’s a way to determine if the problem lies with you: Do all or most of your direct reports share one or more of these 7 C’s? The extent to which this commonality exists likely has more to do with how you perceive the world rather than how these traits show up in the world. If this is the case, you will need to work on correcting underlying assumptions.

Trust is essential to Just Ask Leadership. Delve deeply into the level of trust you have with each team member. Work on the C’s that they aren’t excelling in and commend them for the C’s on which you have come to rely.

Good questions generate thought, focus, and action from the listener. They also convey respect. Maybe that’s why 95 percent of leaders prefer to be asked questions, rather than be told what to do. And yet, according to a survey I conducted, these same leaders give instructions 58 percent of the time, rather than ask coworkers for their input!

It’s time for leaders to practice the type of leadership they most prefer themselves. If you want to lead and motivate others, questions are the answer. Question asking may be an art, but if you approach it as a science, your questions and leadership will improve.