Biggest Mistake Number 9:
Failing to ask good questions
“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant
and ask a few questions.”
Make up a short list of those with the greatest impact on the conduct of business in the 20th century, and the name Peter Drucker is bound to show up. As a teacher, author, and consultant, Drucker has had a profound effect on those of us who’ve served as managers in industry in the last fifty years. We were taught his methods in business courses and our companies made extensive use of his concepts in running the business.
So, if Drucker found asking questions to be so powerful, why is it that so many managers make so little use of the question as a management tool? What is it about asking questions that makes them so powerful?
Good questions that deserve good answers.
Good questions can do the heavy lifting for managers. A question starts by getting someone else talking. For all of the sophisticated theories that have been offered about the art of interpersonal communication, doesn’t communication fundamentally boil down to someone speaking, and others listening to what is being said?
So, when a manager asks a question and people begin to answer, the manager gets information about what is going on and what people are thinking. What manager wouldn’t benefit by that?
Questions engage people. It’s hard to hear a question and not start thinking about it. Ask yourself: “What do you think caused the Space Shuttle Columbia to crash?” and you’ll start thinking about foam insulation, high speeds, heat at re-entry, and the loss of the lives of the crew.
Exactly the same thing happens when you ask someone else a question. Even in the cases where they don’t answer, you can bet they’re thinking about your question. Which also means they’re paying attention.
Questions can shape the agenda. Who in our generation can forget the famous question “What did he know, and when did he know it?” These questions ultimately brought down a President. Six years later, the question “Are you better off now then you were four years ago?” led to the election of another President.
Any manager who wants to advance a cause, like recognizing hazards, would do well to make good use of the same technique, perhaps by asking the people doing the work “What kinds of hazards are you working around that might get you hurt?”
So, if questions offer managers so many benefits, why aren’t they used more often?
As we have witnessed from the front row seats in our careers, managers are far more likely to provide answers than to ask questions. Here’s one perfect – and tragic – example. A company CEO listens to the details of a fatality to a very experienced employee. The accident was in large part caused by the employee’s failure to follow required safety procedures. The CEO’s comment after hearing the story: “If procedures had been followed, this never would have happened.”
True. But, how useful was that statement?
It’s never a bad thing to be reminded that following safety procedures can prevent an injury. We suspect that is why the procedures were written in the first place. Wouldn’t this CEO have been better off asking the question: “What would cause a senior employee who knew the rules to take a shortcut that would cost him is life?” Had he asked that question, and gotten the real answer, he would have been shocked.
But he didn’t ask that question. Instead he did exactly what most of us managers do in situations where we are searching for an explanation: we give an answer; make a comment; offer an opinion. Why are we so inclined to do that?
The answer may well lie in the skills that got us promoted into management in the first place. In school, we were rewarded for knowing the answer. When we first started out our careers, we were recognized for what we knew. Our potential for management was recognized in large part because we weren’t sitting in the slow learner row in the classroom.
Collectively, managers are bright people with a passion to excel. Being recognized for knowing the right answer is a big part of what has driven us for our entire lives. We have made a habit of knowing the answer.
Our knowledge may well be our greatest strength, but it can also be our downfall. Knowing the wrong answer is worse than knowing nothing. Many of the problems we’re expected to solve in business – ones that involve human behavior and marketplace dynamics, for example – don’t come with “correct answers.” Solving a tough safety problem – like why people aren’t following safety procedures – isn’t a graded test. You won’t find the correct answer on page 47 in your textbook.
Solving tough problems requires good thinking. Asking good questions is part and parcel of good thinking. The best managers ask the best questions.
The good news is that learning how to ask good questions isn’t all that difficult, and can easily be mastered. It’s really just a case of forming a new habit: starting out sentences with words like “who, what, when, where, why and how” and finishing up the sentence with a question mark.
Here’s one example. “How many sentences in this article end with a question mark?”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to have all the answers just because you’re the manager. No manager ever does. Our unwillingness to admit what we don’t know, and ask good questions, is one of the biggest mistakes we make.