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Leadership Q&A: No Questions?

A sure sign that a leader is in trouble is when they begin to prohibit asking any questions. No Questions

Why are they in trouble?

The simple reason is that they emotionally realize that they are behind either the knowledge or development curve. Time has caught up with them.  Instead of admitting to what everyone knows is true, they revert to an imperial demeanor where any questions are deemed to be disloyal or a threat to the company.

What is the place of questions in leadership?

Every organization is built on a system of ideas. We call these ideas – products, services, organizational structure, values, purpose, mission, vision, policies, procedures, standards, measurements and the brand.

To a great extent all these ideas are based on assumptions about the organization that are valid or at least were at some point in time.

It is a good thing to question our assumptions, and by extension all these ideas from time to time.  It is good to do so before external circumstances, like a recession or an emerging technology, forces us to play catch up on the curve of knowledge and development.

A Time for Questions

For many of us, the past 18 to 24 months has been a time of searching for answers.  Change has descended upon us like a truck-size anvil. The system of ideas upon which we have organized our  companies, and for some people questions about their own purpose of their life and work are now being asked in more honest, deliberate ways.

It is okay to ask questions. It is not an expression of doubt or weakness, but rather of strength and character.

If you are ready to be serious about asking questions, here are three ways that you can begin.

1.  Ask questions in conversation. When we verbalize a question, it takes on a reality that a question that remains only in our mind does not. Immediately, it connects with the situation we are in. It becomes less ambiguous and abstract, and much more concrete and realistic.  For this reason, we should fill our conversations with people with questions. People do like to talk about themselves. So, ask questions to find insight and information that is beneficial to you.

2. Question your assumptions. During times of stress, many leaders want to minimize the amount of information that they must manage in order to make decisions. The assumption is that they already have the information they need to make an effective decision. By reducing outside influence, they have put themselves in a box.

Executives are surrounded by people who made it that far by knowing what to tell the boss. It isn’t that they lie, but rather they know how to frame their comments in ways that are acceptable and non-threatening.  As a result, the box that contains the executive team can be a closed and insular society. Everyone inside knows everyone else, knows what they know and thinks like they think. We call it Group Think for a reason.  As a result, certain perceptions shared by the team take on the aura of absolute universal truth. Ask questions to test the validity of popularly held opinions. There is usually a social bonding component that makes those ideas more resistant to questioning.

The only way out of this is to question the assumptions that are the basis of your perceptions. I am not advocating doubting ourselves. Rather, I’m suggesting that when we test our assumptions, we are essentially identifying the core values that govern how we think and function as leaders. Every assumption is a based on some value.  By asking questions, we clarify what matters to us and gives us a better platform for leadership and decision-making.

3. Create an environment where asking questions is encouraged. The only way we are going to get honest, candid answers to our questions is to create an environment where people are not penalized for telling the truth. Focus groups are one way for listening to what people have to say.  Another is to show up with donuts and coffee, and talk. Building open, honest, respectful relationships throughout the organizational structure provides a way for valuable information to be shared.This conversation is a two-way one, and becomes so when the relationship is healthy.

In additionl, anonymous surveys also provide a way for people to express themselves.  Having conducted over 60 of these organizational surveys during the past five years, I’ve found that they are a treasure trove of insight about what people think.

The leader who prohibits questions being raised is a person who has boxed him or herself into a corner. The smart leader understands that his or her relationship to people is the key to the success of their business. By asking questions, and listening to answers, by testing assumptions and surveying opinion, leaders learn to be personally engaged with people. The insight and wisdom that comes from this leadership behavior is beyond measure.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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