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Why Truly Great Leaders Have Mastered The Art of Asking

Effective leadership is often seen as one person telling another what to do. Perhaps asking the right question is just as important. Maybe more.
by Fionnuala Kavanagh | Sep 13 2017

We all agree that effective and admired leaders communicate well. Whether it’s delegating tasks or providing context for decisions, communication has a direct impact on performance. This is true at all levels of an organization.

Ask, don't tell

However, the hierarchical structure of many groups has led to ineffective communication strategies. Bosses can become distant, turning the rationale behind their choices murky. Any attempt to clarify a directive causes the leader to bristle. These breakdowns then trickle outward through the business.

In his book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein provides practical advice to those who wish to guide others in the working world. Rather than speaking to others in imperatives, Schein advocates for developing lines of questioning that open up dialogue and provide space for solutions. The key to Schein’s model is what he calls “Humble Inquiry.”

What is Humble Inquiry?

Humble inquiry is a method of engagement that values asking the right questions instead of telling someone else what to do. Think of how you’ve reacted in a meeting where your boss was on the edge of a conniption fit, degrading your work, and ordering you to try something different. Did you feel like you could provide your own ideas or evaluation on what was going wrong? Probably not.

Now suppose your boss asked you how the project was progressing and whether there was anything you might change about it. Such an approach opens up discussion and defers to the expertise of those who are working in a particular area. This style also allows for employees to take ownership of improvements to their work.

What are the right questions to ask?

The best question depends on the issue you are addressing. Schein identifies three main types of inquiry that allow leaders to approach a project from different angles.

Diagnostic Inquiry involves questions such as “Why did you decide to do X?” or “What caused Y to happen?” Through the answers to these questions and in following up on them, you can begin to explore specific points and develop a broader understanding of a project.

Inquisitive, open questions can become useful, especially if you are beginning to feel detached from your team. Schein highlights the success Ken Olsen, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, had in this regard. Olsen walked around the office and asked employees a simple question: “What are you working on?” Through this engagement, he gained his staff’s respect and an idea of their development.

Process-oriented Inquiry allows you to take a high-level approach to the conversation you are having. This is especially useful if the people you are speaking with seem uncomfortable. Asking how people feel the conversation is going can relax tension and shows you are open to their needs.

Attitude is just as important as asking

Humble Inquiry requires your attitude to complement what you ask. Just posing a particular question is no sure-fire formula for successful engagement. Body language and tone of voice also reveal whether or not you are interested in what someone is saying. You also need to be open to shifts in perspective and mindset for humble inquiry to be effective.

Why do we need Humble Inquiry?

A team of talented people is not necessarily a great team. Without effective communication to fuse solid relationships, much of the effort becomes devoted to unproductive ends.

Part of the issue can be cultural as well. Hierarchies can create the impression that one person cannot pose a humble inquiry to another due to their relative rankings within a company. These perceptions can lead to communications barriers and breakdowns that act as a detriment to a team’s or company’s performance.

Practicing humble inquiry serves as an effective method for individuals to improve the flow of information throughout an organization and ease their day-to-day work relations. For more insights into how asking, rather than telling, can lead to better team management; how to gain respect by showing interest in your colleagues; and some deeper analysis of workplace communication, check out more of Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry and other titles in our library of books-in-blinks.

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