Being a questioning leader

Leadership  Learning
09 March, 2015

Get over your fear of asking questions

Recently, over a weekend, my eighth grade daughter was writing a paper using the Socratic method and asked for some help. In the fourth century, Socrates had pioneered the approach of learning through questions, uncovering assumptions and getting to the heart of the issue. Frankly, while I had learnt about this method in college, I vaguely remembered it. My daughter’s homework piqued my curiosity and I began to read more about this approach.

Around the same time, I noticed that my almost-three year old daughter was reaching the wonderful age of asking countless questions. After answering a few of what seemed like incessant queries, I got a bit tired and began shushing her. Then, it hit me. Perhaps, without even realising it, I was teaching her that it was not that good to ask so many questions.

Think about it. Most of us have been told through the years – by our parents, teachers and even bosses – that smart people don’t need to ask questions; they are supposed to have all the answers. It starts as children, when we are told to stop asking so many questions. And even in school, teachers don’t necessarily consider curiosity a virtue.

Over time, as get into leadership positions, we don’t like being asked tough questions, because it would mean that someone is questioning our judgment or authority. And sometimes, we fear that if we ask a question, we may get an answer that we may not like to hear. So, perhaps better to not ask questions in the first place.  As we get older, we unfortunately lose the practice of asking questions.

So today, I want to write about being a questioning leader – how important it is to ask the right questions, to listen effectively and to foster an environment where we encourage everyone to ask questions as well.

What are the benefits of asking questions?

I don’t think that many of us would disagree that there are several benefits to asking questions.

At an individual level, real reflection and introspection is not possible without questions. The process of discovering your own answers itself helps improve your self confidence and self esteem. It also makes you more humble, because intrinsic to this questioning process, is admitting that you don’t always have the answers.

It also enables you to lead others better. Without asking questions, how would you know how your team members are thinking and feeling?

Using questions effectively can foster great participation and teamwork, because you send the message “I care what you think and your opinion is important”. It leads to debate and dialogue and a more authentic and empathetic culture. Engaging people leads to ownership and buy-in; they feel like they are part of the solution. More questioning means more curiosity and as a result, better ideas and out-of-the-box solutions.

Michael Dell, Founder and CEO of Dell, once said, “Asking lots of questions opens new doors to new ideas which ultimately contributes to your competitive advantage”. Building this into our work culture can energise our entire company.

Certainly, Rakesh Sinha, Rajesh Tiwari and members of our manufacturing team can vouch for the impact of a disciplined approach to asking questions to solve specific problem. The ‘5 Whys’ approach, that was pioneered by Toyota, has been used by many of our manufacturing teams to identify root causes and come up with solutions.

So, what is it that comes in the way?

Michael Marquardt, in his book ‘Leading with Questions’, talks about how, as leaders, the problem is not always that we don’t ask enough questions. But perhaps we don’t ask enough of the right questions? Or we don’t ask them in the right manner, to lead to honest and robust discussions? And then some of us also struggle to listen effectively – we get caught up in enjoying hearing our own voices and taking most of the airtime in discussions.

So, while we talk about bedhadhak bolo – do we really allow it to flourish?

Most of us want to look good in front of our bosses and show that we are in control by knowing all the answers. The challenge with this approach is that as things get more complex, we won’t have all the answers. Yesterday’s solutions unfortunately will not solve tomorrow’s problems. Not questioning the status quo can create a distorted sense of reality.  If we want to adapt well to the turbulent environment, it is important that we create the mechanisms to learn quickly. The ability to ask questions is part of this process of how we learn.

Noted management guru, Peter Drucker, once mentioned that the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.

How do you ask the right questions?

It is critical to ask the right questions and to do it in the right manner. Your questions indicate to your team, what is of most concern to you and what they should focus on.

Here are five tips for becoming a questioning leader:

  1. Spend some time preparing and thinking through what questions to ask before you go into a meeting. In order to drive the desired behaviour and actions, it is important that you frame the questions properly.
  2. Don’t put people on the defensive or intentionally make someone look bad. And don’t be presumptuous. So, for instance, instead of asking someone ‘Why is the project behind schedule?’, a better way could be to ask ‘How do you feel about the project thus far?’.  It is usually better to ask empowering questions, such as ‘What’s on your mind?’ or ‘Can you tell me about that?’ or ‘Can you help me understand that?’ In general, try to use words like ‘how’, ‘what’, and ‘tell me about’ to set up your questions.
  3. Get your team members to think more deeply and enable them to discover their own answers. That way, they will feel more responsible and will ‘own’ the issue.
  4. Avoid being judgmental with questions like ‘Whose fault is it?’ or ‘Why can’t you get it right?’. A better way would be ‘How can we stay on track?’ or ‘What can we learn from this?’. Don’t let your biases creep in. Think about it from the other person’s perspective and what will motivate them. Remember, you are not conducting an interrogation, but forging a constructive dialogue.
  5. Always customise your approach and questions for your audience  

Fostering a culture that is conducive to questions

We need to create an environment where our team members feel comfortable to speak up at all times, where questions are welcomed, where assumptions are challenged and where new ways to solve problems are continually explored – we need to move from telling to asking.

Along with asking the right questions, it is also important to listen effectively. In his book The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey says it well: “Listen before you speak. Understand. Diagnose. Listen with your ears–and your eyes and heart. Find out what the most important behaviours are to the people you’re working with. Don’t assume you know what matters most to others. Don’t presume you have all the answers–or all the questions.”

So, don’t take up all the air time in meetings. Be patient and don’t interrupt. Show respect for the person’s views. Small things count here. Use steady eye contact and supportive nods. Don’t check your emails in meetings. Show that you are sincerely interested in what the person is saying. And help people learn through this process.

Remember, if you want to be an inspiring leader, then you need to develop your team members instead of simply telling them what to do. When you ask powerful questions, you will enable your team members to grow. So, encourage more transparency and openness. Ask your team members to speak up more. Seek their opinions. Show curiosity. But be sincere in how you do it.  If we take personal interest in our team members’ ideas and suggestions, they will feel valued and consequently, be more committed to our company.

If you want to learn more about asking good questions, here is a nice simple video on this topic:

If you want to read about this topic, Michael Marquardt’s book ‘Leading with Questions’ is excellent.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

P.S. A few months back, I had written about the pitfalls of email, messaging and social media taking over our lives. While the benefits of being connected are undoubtedly tremendous, is there something such as becoming over-connected and therefore, dis-connected? Our new campaign for Cinthol will inspire you to live your awesome life in the real world. A big kudos to Soma, Shitiz, Rajeesh and all the other team members for this brilliant campaign. Enjoy and do share this with others:


  • tejeansh Singh Bedi says:

    Sir, Again a Great read. Very crucial we lead a conducive culture of questions being asked in our teams.
    This will help us build Great Teams.
    Thanks Once again

  • Sandesh G Shinde says:

    Could never agree more on questioning in a right manner rather than being critical or offensive. Same goes for the one to whom the question is asked to answer in the right manner rather than take personal offence and take the discussion to a different tangent and discussion. A good read. Thanks Vivek ☺

  • Samir Suryawanshi says:

    Hi Vivek, you reminded me of my grand supervisor Chris Worp in Philips, who during my consumer marketing days asked ‘How do you feel about the project thus far?’ , never ever did he ask ‘ why is it behind schedule’. Super read!!

  • Jagadeesh V S Bagadi says:

    This is pretty interesting and in fact a very powerful tool for assessing the professional and personal deeds. Asking the right question at the right time and in the right situation is very important. Unfortunately many of us don’t do the above in work discussions.

    Sometimes questions can offend and lead to heated discussions. Hence, in my opinion, asking the right questions is as important as questioning appropriately. Thank you.

  • Mahadeo Dhakane says:

    Best tool for developing a leader and team: ‘Speak up’. Simply inspired me. Thanks, sir.

  • S. Viswanathan says:

    No question – the creative and intuitive behaviour of a child makes us learn more. Thanks!


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