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Coach to Lead – Asking better questions (Part 1)

This is a new category added to this blog to focus on coaching. If you do not coach, you do not lead. One of the essential skills of a coach is the ability to ask questions – not ask any questions, but asking great questions. Here, Judith Ross shares the skills of asking better questions:

One of your direct reports walks into your office looking for help: the rollout of the new line of Web-based products she is managing is falling behind schedule. All the prototypes have been created and beta tested, but she is having trouble getting final sign-off from the VP of IT. Deadlines have come and gone, and no amount of reminding or cajoling will get him to focus on her project.

As her manager, what should you do? If your first instinct is to suggest a solution, think again.

Although providing employees with answers to their problems often may be the most efficient way to get things done, the short-term gain is overshadowed by long-term costs. By taking the expedient route, you impede direct reports’ development, cheat yourself of access to some potentially fresh and powerful ideas, and place an undue burden on your own shoulders. When faced with an employee’s problem, you can respond in a much more value-adding way: by asking the right questions, help her find the best solution herself. We aren’t talking about asking just any questions but, rather, employing questions that inspire people to think in new ways, expand their range of vision, and enable them to contribute more to the organization.

Questions packing this kind of punch are usually open-ended — they’re not looking for a specific answer. Often beginning with “Why,” “How,” or “What do you think about…,” they are questions that set the stage for subordinates to discover their own solutions, increasing their competence, their confidence, and their ownership of results.

Here is a framework for asking the right questions at the right time to create clarity and agreement around issues and to empower your direct reports.

Ask the right kind of questions

The word “empower” gets bandied about so much that one could be forgiven for overlooking what it actually means: to imbue someone with power, to instill in the individual a sense of his own strength and efficacy. “When the boss asks for a subordinate’s ideas, he sends the message that they are good — perhaps better than his. The individual gains confidence and becomes more competent,” says Michael J. Marquardt, a professor of human resources and international affairs at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) and author of Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

But an empowering question does more than convey respect for the person to whom it’s posed. It actually encourages that person’s development as a thinker and problem solver, thereby delivering both short-term and long-term value: the short-term value of generating a solution to the issue at hand and the long-term value of giving subordinates the tools to handle similar issues in the future independently.

A disempowering question, on the other hand, undercuts the confidence of the person to whom it’s asked and sabotages her performance. Often, these types of questions focus on failure or betray that the questioner has an agenda.

The most effective and empowering questions create value in one or more of the following ways:

1. They create clarity: “Can you explain more about this situation?”

2. They construct better working relations: Instead of “Did you make your sales goal?” ask, “How have sales been going?”

3. They help people think analytically and critically: “What are the consequences of going this route?”

4. They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways: “Why did this work?”

5. They encourage breakthrough thinking: “Can that be done in any other way?”

6. They challenge assumptions: “What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”

7. They create ownership of solutions: “Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”

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