As we progress through school — from kindergarten to 12th grade, from college to that graduate degree — we achieve success by responding to questions correctly. Think about it: The more you know, the better you do and the more rewarded you become. Once you’ve made it to the top, you’re basically considered an expert whose job it is to provide answers.
The system doesn’t change much when translated to the workplace, as a new hire gradually progresses into a leader. But for organizations to get the most out of their people, executives must start asking, rather than answering, questions, said Gary Cohen, founder and managing partner at CO2 Partners, an executive coaching firm, and author of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Leaders Always Ask the Right Questions.
“If you want to grow your people, you need them to be the ones who come up with the answers. And the only way to have that happen is by asking them the questions and not knowing the answers,” Cohen said. “A lot of the leadership processes look at trust going upwards. [But] you really have to learn to trust the people under you. There are multiple answers to every question; there isn’t just one way.”
The organizational benefits of leaders asking questions are manifold. It boosts engagement because people feel they have a real stake in the direction of the company. It also provides clarity, unearths new possibilities and helps align employee learning with business objectives.
“These questions are really moving people to something,” Cohen said. “My example is: ‘How do you want to proceed with this?’ So I’m getting you to think about what steps you need to take. I don’t need to know — I want you to think it through and make a verbal commitment.
“[Further], I’ve come to believe that the resilience of both the company and the actual worker is predicated upon their adaptability,” he continued. “And their adaptability is about their continuous ability to go out and say, ‘What’s going on that I don’t understand? Why are people behaving they way they’re behaving? What do I need to change in order to adapt to this new environment?’ rather than saying, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ The only way to stay nimble is to constantly ask the questions.”
Cohen said one way that learning executives can help build asking questions into the company culture is by reversing the standard “town hall” meeting agenda.
“So many leaders do these town hall meetings now. Let’s change it up,” he said. “Let’s have the town hall meeting be the leader asking questions rather than being the oracle. They disengage their larger population doing that. [They should go] to the front line and say, ‘What do you think? This is affecting you, so how do you think we should do it?’”
Learning leaders themselves also should remember to poll their workforce periodically to ask them what skills they think they need training around or what they’d like to learn more about. Employees are a wealth of information waiting to be tapped.
“An example of this is in writing [my] book. As a practitioner, it would be easy for me to say, ‘I’m telling you.’ But that’s not what happened,” Cohen said. “[My editor and I] worked with this consulting group that actually goes out and does surveys and focus groups on readers. [They asked], ‘This is what the author wants to tell you; is this what you want to read?’ And they scored A through F in six different categories. We literally cut chapters out of [the book]. We renamed the book. It’s hard to do, it makes more work, [but] I think that’s a great first step for [learning executives] to take — [to] always continue to question themselves in their underlying assumptions that they may know the right way.”