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The Overlooked Leadership Skill of Asking Questions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
February 7, 2022

“What might be some other options?” Sarah, my supervisor, asked one afternoon after I had just shared my recommendations for dealing with an on-going challenge my team had been struggling with for quite some time. I was new in my position as a team lead, and I wasn’t sure what she was asking for. I’d offered the solution she had mentioned in a previous conversation, and I couldn’t help but think: Isn’t this what she wanted?

While my team and I weren’t wild about the approach she had offered, we had all agreed, “She was the boss.” Instead of just accepting the recommendation and moving on, Sarah asked some follow up questions that challenged me to probe deeper—to consider other ideas and question some of my assumptions. In essence, she wanted me to think for myself.

Then Sarah asked me what Iwanted to do about the situation. Instead of telling me what she felt I should do, she allowed space and time for a completely different conversation. As I shared some insights my team had to the problem we were facing, she showed genuine curiosity and asked me to articulate what we felt made this situation a challenge.

After I explained the core issue that we felt needed to be addressed, she asked, “What would be most useful at this point?” This conversation resulted in my team being able to put into motion a very different solution than the one originally presented. The team was energized to focus on resolving a long-standing problem that had impacted their ability to be effective. In addition, they appreciated that their insights and ideas were acknowledged and respected.

Leadership Lessons

As I reflect on this exchange, there are at least 3 lessons that surface which I feel are timeless: 1) Leaders don’t have to have all the right answers. 2) Good leaders are willing to be curious by asking others for their insights and ideas. 3) Leaders who ask questions model a learning culture.

Lesson #1: Leaders don’t have to know all the answers.

As a leader, your authority, expertise and experience are valuable. But there is also value in the experience and expertise of others. Your challenge is distinguishing between when you should tell people what to do and how to do it, and when to take advantage of a  “coachable moment” where you can help your team learn and grow.

Lesson #2: As a leader, it’s okay to acknowledge you don’t have all the answers and to ask others for their help.

Some leaders may feel that asking others for their ideas is a sign of weakness or makes them appear vulnerable. Yet by doing so, you can create an opportunity where possibilities can be explored together, enhancing trust and dialogue. By making it safe for others to explore different options, you can surface diverse experiences and insights that frequently lead to better solutions.

Lesson #3: When leaders ask questions, they model a learning culture.

Through asking questions, you show your interest in another person’s ideas. This respect encourages employees to explore alternative ways of thinking and allows them a chance to consider what might work or not work. But to do this effectively requires that you resist the urge to jump in with your own solution and instead listen. By “listening” I mean more than just being quiet. It’s what Sarah did when she asked probing questions that encouraged me to expand on new insights, while helping me challenge long-held assumptions—one being that “the boss is always right.”

The Benefits of Asking Questions

There are several benefits to adopting an approach that includes asking powerful questions and then creating the space and time for a thoughtful response. First, you’re demonstrating how effective leadership includes a skillset that incorporates both questioning and listening. Second, it takes pressure off you to always be the one to come up with a solution—which, if we’re honest, can be exhausting at times. And finally, it gives those on your team a chance to develop confidence in their decision-making skills.

How Would You Rate Your Questions?

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself as a question-asker? As you consider your response, think about the types of questions you commonly ask:

  • Do they reinforce your expertise on a topic and keep you in control?
  • Do they offer solutions to problems?
  • Do they encourage people to identify, for themselves, the best solution?
  • Are they based in curiosity?
  • Are they motivated by a genuine desire to support self-discovery?

The most powerful questions are those that are based in genuine curiosity that encourage self-discovery, like the conversation I had with Sarah. That afternoon became a powerful learning moment for me—one that I’ve tried to model with others.

As a leader in your organization, you clearly have expertise in many areas. Adding the skill of asking probing and insightful questions to your repertoire can enhance your credibility and respect, while modeling the importance of listening to the ideas and experiences of others for your team.

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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