There exists a common sentiment that once you have made your way to the top, you should stop asking questions and start answering them. Right? Wrong.
With the avalanche of constantly-changing information available, today’s world is simply too complex for an old-school hierarchical approach. A single expert/leader cannot know enough to tell people what to do. She needs her staff as additional eyes, ears, and brains in the organization. Asking questions therefore becomes a key competency of leadership.
As Michael J. Marquardt explains in his book, Leading With Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What To Ask, asking questions, with the intent to learn from the answers, reaps innumerable benefits. We gain improved decision-making and problem-solving. We start viewing each other as resources, not competitors. We get along better with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We manage conflict better because we’re able to draw out all parties, understand differing perspectives, and find a common ideal that all can endorse.
Moreover, innovation happens when we see things differently. This new perspective results from questions that cause us to pause, consider, and perhaps re-consider another person’s viewpoint.
Marquardt identifies and de-bunks four main reasons we tend to avoid asking questions when we reach positions of authority in our organizations:
- Fear/self-protection. There is a prevailing belief that smart people don’t have to ask questions because they have the answers. When we become leaders, we want to be the one with the answers rather than the one with the questions. We don’t want to undo our hard-won position of authority. What if we get an answer we don’t like? The antidote to fear, Marquardt asserts, is courage. A true leader is courageous and authentic and not intimidated by information that may come to light as the result of a question.
- Being too rushed. When things are not going as well or as fast as projected, it is a great temptation to issue orders or make statements to “get it done.” etc. Entertaining questions and answers of staff takes a lot longer. But when we use questions, we tease out and clarify the best course of action and allow the entire team to take responsibility for a successful project.
- Lack of skill/role models. Many leaders, including lawyers, have never been trained on asking good questions to learn. Lawyers are trained to ask leading questions that tie a witness down in court, but not open questions that foster a full exchange of information and collaboration. We need to know what to ask and how to ask. Effective questions are empowering, and build a positive relationship between the questioner and person being questioned.
- Culture discourages questions. The culture of many organizations is to require following orders; asking questions is a risky endeavor. In the legal field, with an increasing emphasis on value, clients want to pay for expert advice issued quickly. We need to question this culture by exploring what can be accomplished with sincere questions geared to learning.
A questioning culture creates a culture of “we” not “you versus me” or “management versus labor” (or “partners versus associates”). A leader who sincerely asks questions demonstrates a willingness to learn, a desire to serve and a humility that can be an inspiration for the whole organization.
I encourage you to read Marquardt’s book. It provides practical tips to promoting a questioning culture, a culture that is indispensable to today’s lawyer-leaders. Because of the rapid changes characterizing the legal landscape, we as lawyers need to improve our ability to research the unfamiliar and, as Marquardt says, “avoid responding to today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions while tomorrow’s challenges engulf us.”