Book Review: Leading with Questions

Leading With Questions”, by Michael Marquardt, Jossey-Bass (2005)

Asking good questions is a best practice for knowledge transfer. In this book, Marquardt describes “how leaders find the right solutions by knowing what to ask.” According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the ultimate key to a leader’s success is the ability to ask effective questions and to encourage others to do this. The author provides practical advice that teaches how to ask, listen effectively and create the environment where asking questions encourages thinking and improvement.

A questioning culture becomes “we” instead of “you versus me”. Responsibility, problems and ideas are more readily shared. Some signs include: willingness to admit “I don’t know” or, asking in a positive frame such as “what have you accomplished” rather than “why is the project behind”. This leads to increased motivation and job satisfaction.

Empowering questions tend to foster ideas and creative solutions rather than defensiveness and doubt. This helps to move issues off the leader’s plate and towards ownership by others. Examples include:

  • How do you feel about the project thus far?
  • What have you accomplished that you are most proud of?
  • How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?
  • What key things need to happen to achieve objectives?
  • What kind of support do you need to assure success?

Probing questions should not include advice. The goal is to encourage others to come up with answers. It is also important to listen and show interest in the responses.

  • What is a viable alternative?
  • Can you more fully describe your concerns?
  • How would you describe the current reality?
  • What are a few options for improvement?
  • What will you commit to do by when?

How can leaders make their organization “question friendly?” How can they create a safe environment that promotes inquiry that challenges the current state in a way that promotes productive dialog? Some examples include asking your team to be prepared to present and defend a perspective on a current issue at your next meeting, or framing the agenda using critical questions that need to be addressed.

Marquardt offers a four step model to for effective coaching:

  1. Develop relationships through an attitude of reflection, honesty and learning. Asking “what was on your mind when you did this” or “what values caused these actions” helps connect with people who are struggling with issues.
  2. Analyze your conversations and relationships to understand differences in approach. For example if you sense that there are different assumptions, explain yours and encourage your colleague to do the same. These unstated assumptions tend to lead to more argument than satisfactory resolution.
  3. Listen carefully and ask questions if you aren’t sure of what the speaker is trying to say. Paraphrasing what you heard is an effective way to do this.
  4. Plan actions only after others have had the opportunity to think through their own problems. Ask for their recommendations instead of jumping in with your own quick solutions.

Three good questions that help build relationships are:

  • How can I help you?
  • What would you do?
  • What would someone else (e.g. a competitor) do?

These will help you work with your team to clarify needs, transfer responsibility and generate great ideas. These ideas can help you evolve from a leader of the past who tells to a leader of the future who asks.

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