Asking the right questions can trigger change, opportunity and growth. But, writes Warren Berger for the HBR Blog Network, there are certain questions that leaders should never ask.
Some questions motivate your employees while others only discourage them. Leaders should try to use positive language and avoid questions which have a negative focus. The author describes the five worst questions you can ask your employees and shows how you can turn them into positive enquiries.
1) What’s the problem?
Eighty percent of management meetings start with this kind of negative question, claims David Cooperrider, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Case Western Reserve University. If a leader focuses on a company’s problems and weaknesses, he argues, then this negative focus will spread throughout the organisation.
Cooperrider recommends asking positive questions that will highlight the organisation’s strengths and create pathways to achieving goals. Better questions would be: what are we doing well and how can we do better?
2) Whose fault is it?
The aim of this question is to find a scapegoat for a particular problem, when generally, argues Berger, the blame could be shared by many. A more constructive way to deal with failings would be to ask: how can we work as a team to overcome our weaknesses? This question will help identify trouble spots without blaming anyone.
3) Why don’t you do it this way?
When asked by a leader, this question sounds less like a helpful suggestion and more like a command. This type of questioning “is just a stealth form of control”, says leadership expert Mary Jo Asmus. If you have hired good people there should be no need to dictate how they work, she adds. Better questions would be: how are you thinking of doing it? Or: what approach do you have in mind?
4) Haven’t we tried this already?
This question translates as: why will this approach work now when it didn’t work last time? Tone is very important here, says Phil Kessler of Vistage International. Asking this question can appear defeatist, suggesting that if something didn’t work the first time then it should never be tried again. But some ideas can and should be retested as circumstances change. So a better question would be: if we try this now, how will it work differently?
5) What’s our iPad?
This question is generally asked by a boss panicking over a competitor’s success, says Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates. It encourages imitation rather than innovation, directing employees to replicate the competition’s new product as quickly as possible. Better questions would be: why is our competitor’s product working? Or what need is it satisfying? Or how might we meet these needs?
Besides avoiding these five questions, always consider the tone and aim of your questioning. Questions should be about enquiry rather than advocacy. And a paternal, condescending tone should be avoided at all costs. Berger’s last piece of advice is: never ask a question if you don’t want an answer.