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Why every leader must focus on creating a culture of questioning

Great leaders are wise enough to know they do not have all the answers, and that to be able to mentor and coach subordinates, they need to be able to listen and for that, questioning skills are key

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Great leaders are wise enough to know they do not have all the answers, and that to be able to mentor and coach subordinates, they need to be able to listen and for that, questioning skills are key

If you lead an organization and reading this now, I would be curious to know if you are comfortable asking questions to your teammates? Have you built an environment that enables people to challenge the status quo and take risks? Let me take a guess, most likely not. If not then have you ever given a serious thought, why is it so? You will be surprised at the benefits accrued from building a culture of questioning. The great leaders are known to ask meaningful questions that empower their teams, and they actively encourage such a culture. Former CEO and Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt in Trillion Dollar Coach writes about iconic coach Bill Campbell: ‘He made sure the team was communicating, that tensions and disagreements were brought to the surface and discussed, so that when the big decisions were made, everyone was on board, whether they agreed or not.’ Without Campbell, Google would not be where it is today, he confesses. Campbell has coached Brad Smith, Al Gore, Donna Dubinsky, John Donahoe, Ronnie Lott, Ben Horowitz, and Sheryl Sandberg among many other chief executives.

As a leader, you have enough power at your disposal to ask questions and develop a culture around it. Then what stops you? It is the traditional belief that leaders must ‘know-it-all.’ And that asking questions might portray you as lacking in your leadership skills. The conditioning from an early age that it is intrusive and rude might be the reason most of us are not naturally inclined towards questioning. This social conditioning leads to strange fear that over time makes us feel uncomfortable towards inquisitiveness – a trait we are born with. Some of us go on to lead teams and organizations. While our designations and statuses change, and even though we learn the management lessons on the way, the reluctance towards questioning sticks with us forever.

Here are 3 reasons why you must actively build a culture of questioning. 

Empathetic Organisation: Leaders of great companies are known to be grounded, humble, and relentless in their pursuit of achieving organizational goals. And they are wise enough to know they do not have all the answers, and that to be able to mentor and coach subordinates, they need to be able to listen and for that, questioning skills are key. This percolates down to other vertical heads and through them to the entire organization. By constantly asking the right questions they display their willingness to engage with others, show empathy towards their opinion, and in the process make them feel wanted by the organization. A CEO I spoke to recently told me he finds asking questions waste of time. ‘There is so much on my to-do list, am always in a hurry,’ he quipped. The problem with the management style of this kind is that we fail to give people a stake in the success of an effort because we never really get down to asking them ‘what needs to be done’ and rather focus more on telling them to ‘get it done.’ Dale Carnegie in his 1936 masterpiece, How to Win Friends and Influence People, wrote ‘if you want others to like you, if you want to develop real friendships, if you want to help others at the same time as you help yourself, become genuinely interested in other people.’ 

Better Control Over Organisation: The pandemic has shown the importance of investing in business sustainability measures. By asking the right questions, a leader can mitigate the unforeseen and hidden risks to a large extent. In almost every analysis of a business failure, it is found that some cog in the wheel was in the know of what was coming but no one really cared to take his or her opinion. A culture of questioning is perceived to be more inclusive and the fissures, if any, are revealed sooner before they become unmanageable. Mark Marquardt, the professor of HRD and International Affairs at George Washington University is a firm believer in the power of questioning. He observes, ‘in organizations that discourage questions, information is usually hoarded, people keep their heads down and stick to their knitting, and few people are willing to take any risks. Leaders through questions can build a culture in which questions are welcomed, assumptions are challenged, and new ways to solve problems are explored.’ Great leaders actively invest time in listening to their team. It allows them to deal with the mental chaos that comes with business pressures. They are adept at introducing questions and then stepping back to observe the various patterns that emerge from the answers. Some of the answers could be crucial to the business. 

Empowering Others: While questions that judge and blame disempower others, the empowering questions provide the receiver feeling of being valued and that the opinion is respected. Questions like, ‘what do you think about…?’ are far more meaningful than ‘why did you not finish this…?’ Answering questions brings-in greater accountability and helps prepare the second rung of leadership that is better ingrained in the company’s cultural nuances. Joseph Badaracco, in Leading Quietly, argues that the larger-than-life accomplishments of top leaders are not what makes the world work. What does, he says, is the sum of millions of small yet consequential decisions that individuals working far from the limelight make every day. Badaracco calls them ‘quiet leaders.’ Great leaders know this and utilize their questioning skills to create a culture where these quiet leaders can express themselves.

If questioning does not come to you naturally, there might be a learning curve involved but the benefits might far outweigh the efforts that you would put in. And the emotional intelligence that you would build during this journey would be priceless. So don’t wait and take the first step towards building a culture of questioning at your organization. A culture where employees feel safe in asking and answering questions and are able to trust the system that they would not be put in a spot for candid responses.

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