Why the most effective leaders ask questions fearlessly

People often think leaders are supposed to have all of the answers. However, as markets across all industries continue to undergo rapid change, issues become increasingly complex — even the most qualified leaders can't possibly possess all of the experience, knowledge and strategies to solve every problem on his or her own. Instead of seeking to always provide an answer, the most effective leaders recognize the power of asking questions.

According to Sanyin Siang, executive director of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University's Business School, instead of striving to answer every question thrown their way, effective leaders surround themselves with people who can supplement the expertise, experience and perspectives they don't possess themselves.

According to Ms. Siang, strong leaders use questions as a tool in several different ways, including:

1. To convey their point of view and understanding of a situation. You can often tell a lot about a person by the questions they ask — maybe as much as by the answers they offer. According to Ms. Siang, effective leaders fearlessly ask questions because they understand that a good question at once shows their understanding of a certain issue while conveying his or her point of view.

2. To arrive at the core of an issue. Strong leaders know how to ask the questions get at the critical information necessary for problem solving.

"They take a step back and ask, why is this the case? How does this affect us? What are we assuming? What do we need to know that we don't know yet? What other questions do we need to be asking right now?" according to Mr. Siang.

3. To shift people's focus from the negative reality to the potential for change. Especially today, as even the strongest businesses face some degree of uncertainty of what the future will bring, asking questions that prevent employees from dwelling on the negatives is crucial. By asking questions that inspire and ignite employees' imaginations, it is possible to instill a sense of optimism, an important aspect of strategy building and problem solving, according to Ms. Siang.

4. To encourage teamwork. Carefully crafted questions can resolve tension between opposing viewpoints and increase enthusiasm about collaboration. According to Ms. Siang, questions that shift attention from the zero-sum mindset and highlight the ways elements of opposing views can be integrated can lead to much more effective participation.

5. To create a more positive dynamic. Unlike making declarations, asking questions fosters a more effective power dynamic between leaders and employees, because asking questions can raise the sense of power the respondent feels without weakening the power of the person asking the question. Also, the responsibility of answering their leader's questions in turn transfers a greater sense of accountability into employees' hands.

6. To help others realize their leadership potential. According to Ms. Siang, asking questions gives respondents the opportunity for a good dose of self-reflection, whereas being prescriptive takes this learning opportunity away. Answering questions gives people a greater sense of self-awareness, as well as a more nuanced awareness of the issues they and their organization face. They become more confident in their skills and capabilities and are more inclined to develop leadership tendencies themselves.

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