The art of inquiry: Leadership Essentials (Part 1)

The value of inquiry or powerful questioning is now well established and becoming even more relevant given today’s hyper-competitive, fast changing and complex business environment.
Some of the benefits include:

  • Inviting people to share diverse perspectives and ideas
  • Empowering people to think for themselves and arrive at the best possible solution
  • Influencing people using a softer “pull” rather than forceful “push” style. This builds higher levels of trust and empathy and is typically more effective in achieving win-win solutions than more adversarial approaches to persuasion.

Research shows that the majority of leaders still use far more advocacy – putting forward arguments as a means of persuasion – when interacting with direct reports and other co-workers. This behaviour is frequently reinforced by top leadership and the culture of the organisation which encourage ‘tell’ approaches to getting things done over active listening and questioning.

Leading management author and business psychologist, Edgar Schein, who wrote a book entitled “Humble Inquiry” several years ago defined inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” (p.2). This is a great definition as it underscores the importance of drawing out others’ ideas and perspectives and asking open-ended questions to help tackle business challenges and create a learning, growth mindset.

In my coaching and leadership development work over several decades, I have observed many leaders make huge strides in the way they lead and influence others through focusing more time and effort on inquiry rather than advocacy in meetings, performance conversations, strategy off sites, etc.

Formulating and asking powerful questions can be learned and, if practiced regularly, can become a career-enhancing skill to help leaders and managers stand out from their peers and deliver better results.

In deciding what questions to ask leaders will eventually build up their own arsenal of powerful questions, however the following principles are important to apply consciously at the outset:

  1. Keep your question as clear and straightforward as possible; always avoid double-barrelled, long-winded and indirect questions.
  2. Questions starting with “what”, “when”, “where” and “how” are more powerful than why”, as the latter can be interpreted as judgmental.
  3. Use probing questions to explore responses in more depth.
  4. Choose questions that encourage people to focus on solutions, strengths and opportunities rather than problems and weaknesses.
  5. Avoid asking leading questions where you already have an answer or position you want others to support.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions provided they are constructive and focused on the decision or task being discussed.
  7. Sometimes it pays to act ignorant in order to ask breakthrough questions.

We have found that many leaders struggle with the type of questions to ask when they start making a shift towards advocacy. Therefore, I have outlined below 5 powerful questions leaders can use across a variety of situations they commonly face:

 First 100 days in the job

  1. What is already working well that we should build upon?
  2. What are your expectations of me as a leader?
  3. What would you like to know about me (skills, strengths, experience, interests, etc.)?
  4. What priority areas would you like me to improve?
  5. Do you have any ideas or recommendations to help me?

 Performance conversations

  1. What do you think you’ve done particularly well?
  2. What have been the most energising aspects of the job? And the least energising?
  3. What would you like to learn to optimise your strengths and performance?
  4. What are your challenges or blockers? What can you do to address these?
  5. What ideas and solutions do you have to help achieve our results?

 Overcoming conflict and disagreements

  1. What are your expectations of me?
  2. How would you like us to work together in future?
  3. What would you see as the best possible solution to this issue?
  4. What are the risks (for us, the organisation and those impacted) if we can’t agree?
  5. What steps can we take in the next 30 days to build a stronger relationship?

Building a new strategy

  1. What is our purpose?
  2. Who are our most important customers? How will they and their needs change?
  3. How do we want customers to see our value and difference?
  4. What are our 5 most important goals for the next 3-5 years?
  5. How will we define results and measure our success?

  Decision-making during and between meetings

  1. What are the options?
  2. What criteria/principles are we using to evaluate the options?
  3. What data/facts do we still need in order to make a good quality decision?
  4. Do we need to decide this right now?
  5. How can we de-risk the decision as much as possible?

Leading people through change

  1. Why are we changing?
  2. How can we best achieve the desired goal(s)?
  3. Who will be impacted (directly and indirectly)?
  4. What behaviours and support can you provide to achieve the desired goal(s)?
  5. What can I do as your manager to support you in dealing with the change?

Managing your career (and those of others)

  1. What roles and tasks energise you most?
  2. What can you do well? What are your unique strengths and skills and how can you optimise these?
  3. At the end of your career, what would you have liked to have achieved? Taking this into account, what goal would you like to accomplish in the next year?
  4. What is the biggest risk area (weakness, overdone strength or mental barrier) you need to address to achieve your goals?
  5. Who can support you to achieve your goals?

5 more thought-provoking questions to ask yourself

  1. Why should anyone be led by you?
  2. What are you doing for others to make their lives better?
  3. What have you always wanted to do that you can start doing next week?
  4. What type of work-life balance now will ensure you have no regrets in 10 years’ time?
  5. What 3 words would you like others to use to describe you when you’re not in the room?

The art of inquiry is at the heart of effective leadership as it enables leaders to remain curious and unlock the ideas, perspectives and strengths of those they are seeking to inspire and influence. Without engaging people in genuine two-way conversation, leaders run the risk of paying attention only to their own thoughts and perspectives. They also stop growing as they incorrectly assume they are ‘experts’ who haven’t got anything more to learn. This is likely to limit their effectiveness as co-workers and other stakeholders will start seeing them as forceful, arrogant and autocratic, behaviours that will ultimately derail their career if left unchecked.

Recommended Reading:

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco: BK Publishers Inc.

James Brook