Why Asking the Right Questions Often Trumps Knowing the Right Answers

17 April, 2020

By Guy Vereecke, AHEAD (Belgium)

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyption writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature (1988) already stated: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.” But in reality we often see that we are socially conditioned to think that we have to give the right answers to succeed. 

Quite often, I meet young and experienced managers who are convinced that in order to be successful they need to have all the answers.  Most of them are intelligent and hard-working people who want to get it right, but they are struggling. They stand in front of their teams at weekly staff meetings expounding on what needed to be done and how to do it.  They want to gain the respect of their team by acting like somebody who has all the answers… and if we think about it, it is quite normal. 

Aren’t we all conditioned to think that we have to give the right answers to succeed?  It is true that toddlers continue to ask questions to their parents,  often to their despair, but once in school they grow up in a right-answer world. From primary school to university, we are rewarded for giving the right answers.  As young children, we would wave our hands in class and cry loud “Teacher, Teacher” to show we knew the answer.  We received high grades for replicating the right answers on tests and we were marked down for wrong answers. 

Is it a wonder that many leaders retain the frame of reference that assumes when someone comes to them with a problem, their role is to provide the right answer?  They pride themselves on having right answers to solve problems, knowing how to do things right, and never showing doubt.  They may even fear that not having an answer means that followers will lose respect or confidence in them, and there lies the challenge. 

Expecting things to be done your way often comes across as micromanagement, which is probably not the way to engage, to motivate and inspire your people.

How can a leader let go of being the doer, the expert, the answer provider?  A simple way to shift this might be by asking questions.  The higher you go in a company, the more important it becomes to ask questions rather than having answers.
Questions make people think, whereas answers bring thinking to a full stop.

Questions encourage creativity.

As a leader you can also steer the debate about the right questions. Asking outcome-focused or results-oriented questions e.g.:

  • What ideas do you have to achieve this outcome?
  • What will you do to get started? 

These questions will direct people’s thinking toward the future and stimulate their creative thinking about how to get to the desired future.

Creating ideas for a better future is fun and new possibilities drive action.

All it takes are simple questions like:

  • What do you want to have happen?
  • What would be the first step you can take to make that happen?

In doing so, you develop the independence of your employees rather than make them dependent on you … and they will like it (after a while).[1]

[1] Based on: Daft, Richard L., The Executive and The Elephant, John Wiley & Sons, 2010, 324 p.

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