Beyond Vision Part 2: The questioning leader

In Beyond Vision Part 1: The listening leader, I shared my experience that listening can transform leadership. A leader who listens – with genuine, disciplined interest – while communicating a vision or inviting participation, turns these leadership styles into profound opportunities to help others grow.

In Leadership That Gets Results, Daniel Goleman showed how leaders who include the coaching style in their repertoire can positively impact their teams’ work environment. When a leader works with someone on their long-term development, they offer personal and valued recognition, raise standards and create clarity.

A short-term hit for a long-term gain?

For many leaders – already torn between performance targets and change initiatives, and uncertain of their people’s willingness or capacity to develop – using the coaching style can seem like a long-term, risky investment. And Goleman acknowledges that this style can be less effective when a development issue involves the urgent completion of a task, or when someone is unwilling to be coached.

And, of course, an employee may be resistant to coaching for many reasons. Perhaps they don’t see the need. They may take for granted abilities they could strengthen. They may be avoiding ones they could gain. Or they may not have faith in their leader’s approach or credibility.

In my experience, these are all barriers that a leader needs to attend to – especially if they anticipate that their own experience and know-how is limiting their team’s engagement, input, performance and growth.

Is there a way to accelerate growth?

In Part 1, I shared some of Nancy Kline’s discoveries on how leaders can enhance their team members’ thinking by listening. My work often focuses on listening, because the leaders I coach recognise that their role can erode this seemingly simple skill. Many leaders feel under pressure to know, tell and do.

Those resisting this pressure recognise that they need to do something different to support their team members’ thinking and growth. They do it for the benefit of their people and the long-term health of their organisations. For them, learning to ask great questions goes hand-in-hand with learning to really listen. 

How do questions ignite thinking?

Questions are compelling. They draw us in more powerfully than statements. They trigger our natural curiosity. Asked with integrity, they break down our resistance. Asked with credibility, they get us thinking. They connect us to situations, issues and other people. And they prime our readiness to respond and act.

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger shows how individuals and companies have transformed what they do by asking themselves questions. He shares a sequence that great questioners work through to spark their thinking:

Why? Why not? Key questions for when a situation is not ideal. These help us identify the real problem that’s waiting to be fixed.

What if? The question that opens up our thinking to possible improvements and solutions.

How? The question that bench-tests our ideas, helping us settle on the ones that can work.

In The Book of Beautiful Questions, Berger goes further and offers powerful questions that can help us decide, create, connect and lead. These include questions that leaders can ask of themselves, for example “Why do I choose to lead?” and “Am I ready to be a 21stcentury leader?”

Berger shares the stories of leaders who have accepted that interacting, questioning, listening and helping are not distractions – they are the real work of leadership. He shows how to create a culture of curiosity, one that uses questions in a way that’s safe, rewarding, productive and habit-forming. And he offers cracking questions for coaching conversations. Here are just a few of them:

  • What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing?
  • What do you think is working well? And what is not?
  • What inspired you to take this approach?

The leaders I work with tell me that daring to ask these questions does far more than strengthen their coaching style. It helps them head off problems and frustrations, build trust and raise morale. I’m learning with them that leaders who ask great questions can accelerate the path from development to performance.

If you want to create a team environment that supports creative, collaborative thinking, you may want to come along to the Time To Think Foundation Programme in Essex on 27th-28th January 2020.

If you enjoyed reading this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can help leaders in your organisation to ask great questions, please pass it on. Connect with me on LinkedIn or simply get in touch. 

Thanks for reading!

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

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