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The Management Moment

Asking Better Questions—A Core Leadership Skill

Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc; Gilkey, Roderick PhD

Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH, MSc, Column Editor

Author Information
Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2020 - Volume 26 - Issue 6 - p 632-633
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001177
  • Free

In the past, the leader was the person who came up with the right answers; in the future, the leader will be the person who comes up with the right questions.

Peter Drucker1(p34)

In prior Management Moment columns, we have focused on certain core leadership skills needed for effective practice in public health organizations. Recently, we considered the topic of effective listening skills.2 As noted, listening deeply nurtures our ability to connect with others and to share our passion for serving the health of the public. Deep listening builds relationships, fosters trust, and thereby establishes a foundation for creative action. In this column, we turn to the companion skill of asking better questions—a central element of effective public health leadership.

The Benefit of Better Questions

Good questions help focus attention on what is really important. In our world of information overload and constant electronic connectedness, leaders serve others by redirecting attention from our “distraction devices” toward what those whom we lead need to attend to.

Better questions help foster and deepen relationships; our central premise is that “relationships are primary—all else is derivative.”

Furthermore, by developing a skill of asking better questions, we may learn to listen to ourselves more effectively. We might even ask ourselves the question, “What does it feel like to be really listened to?” In this context, asking ourselves questions can also be a buffer against cognitive bias, as we might ask, “What assumptions am I making here and are my metrics objective and fair?”

As noted by Marquardt,3 better questions create confidence and improve team member competence. As a result, teams may exhibit greater creativity and innovation. Better questions can also help guard against the dangers of “group think,” which undermines a team's ability to make effective decisions.

Barriers to Better Questions

In many organizations (particularly ones with a strong technical orientation), leaders tend to hold themselves accountable for having all the “right answers”; this attitude is often developed as a result of acquiring deep technical knowledge in a particular area. As a result, these leaders do not want to show a lack of knowledge, which seems to indicate “weakness.” This tendency may cause leaders to find it difficult to acknowledge that they do not have all the answers. In such stressful situations, a leader can easily misconstrue assumptions and conjecture as facts in an effort to appear competent and knowledgeable.

Often, particularly in times of crisis or urgency, leaders may be too rushed and tend to focus on action leading to a “telling not asking” approach.4 In some settings, asking questions of top leaders is seen as a sign of insubordination. Furthermore, many lack the skill to ask better questions as they may lack the desire or inclination to engage in reflection and deeper analysis.

The Skill of Asking Better Questions

Guiding principles

As leaders develop their skill in asking better questions, certain guiding principles5 may be useful.

  • Make questions open-ended: Open-ended questions foster reflection and deep thought and unexpected new ideas.
  • Be a good listener: Focus on what is being said (including body language) rather than composing your next thought or statement and notice what is not being said, which can be extremely significant.
  • Avoid questions that are “statements in disguise”: Make sure you are really engaging deep inquiry and not simply trying to make your point in a different way or reinforcing your biases or preconceptions.
  • Make the process as conversational as possible: Your tone and posture are very important in establishing trust and openness.
  • Allow questions to surface deeply held assumptions: Assumptions drive beliefs and actions and are often implicit (not explicit).
  • Employ a dialogue method by balancing inquiry and advocacy6: The process of asking better questions can be accompanied by expressing opinions and advocating for a position; however, we suggest that it is preferable to follow the maxim of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand and then be understood.”7

Tactics

  • Keep questions short—5 words or so if possible in a single sentence ideally.
  • Use of “what,” “how,” or “why” gets best response.5
  • Avoid asking a string of questions—ask one simple question at a time.
  • Pace your asking and then wait PATIENTLY for an answer (and repeat as needed) ... silence is golden.
  • Keep your tone of voice soft.
  • Share personal information and stories when appropriate.
  • When someone asks you a question, give it back to them by asking:
    1. “What should we do?”
    2. “What is our goal?”
    3. “What is the impact?”
    4. “What are the critical success factors?”
    5. “What is likely to get in the way?”
    6. “What can you influence?”

Long-term Organizational Impact

Asking better questions creates an environment that enhances commitment to accountability and community. Better questions can and should reinforce shared values and beliefs and an awareness of strategic options and alternatives. Stronger teams with greater performance and enhanced creativity develop leading to followers who say: “We didn't know what we could not do.”

Furthermore, there should be fewer expectations for leaders to “have all the answers,” to feel pressured to respond to situations prematurely, and then to exert top-down control. Improved morale and greater staff satisfaction and retention may occur. Growth and development of leadership skills within the organization can be practiced regularly and also shared with others. Having permission for everyone to ask questions empowers everyone to lead and increases candor and commitment.

Summary

Asking better questions is a core leadership skill in public health organizations. As with any skill, we can all improve our ability to ask better questions and to listen deeply to what others say in response. By increasing our skill in asking better questions, we enhance our “cognitive fitness,” leading to greater ability to address the many challenges of effective public health leadership.8,9 Better questions lead to better decisions and more impactful actions, which, in turn, better serve the health of our communities.

References

1. Drucker P. The Essential Drucker. New York, NY: Harper Business; 2008.
2. Baker EL, Dunne-Moses A, Calarco AJ, Gilkey R. Listening to understand: a core leadership skill. J Public Health Pract Manag. 2019;25(5):508–510.
3. Marquardt M. Leading With Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2014.
4. Schein E. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2013.
5. Center for Creative Leadership. Better Conversations Every Day. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership; 2018. https://www.ccl.org/leadership-solutions/coaching-services/better-conversations-every-day. Accessed March 11, 2020.
6. Bohm D. On Dialogue. New York, NY: Routledge Classics; 2004.
7. Covey SR. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press; 1989.
8. Gilkey R, Kilts C. Cognitive fitness. Harvard Business Review. November 2007:1–10.
9. Wise W. Asking Powerful Questions: Create Conversations That Matter. Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace; 2017.
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