Leaders Ask Good Questions

The Power of Questions was the topic of a workshop here at the NonProfit Center led by TSNE’s manager of organizational learning, Larry Peers. This topic is a particular interest of mine, so I’d like to share some content from the seminar with you and pose some questions of my own.

The Power of Questions was the topic of a workshop here at the NonProfit Center led by TSNE’s manager of organizational learning, Larry Peers. This topic is a particular interest of mine, so I’d like to share some content from the seminar with you and pose some questions of my own.

Inquiry and Leadership

As we discussed in the workshop, leaders who are oriented towards inquiry or who use it as a regular, conscious strategy to enhance staff participation in decision-making are more effective than those who have a more top-down, authoritarian approach. Makes sense, right? But does it really play out that way in practice? Read on.

What are some of the characteristics of the inquiring leader? She or he tends to:

  • Be curious in a nonjudgmental way
  • Engage in careful, thorough listening
  • Value continuous learning for him or herself and others
  • Model constructive questioning
  • Establish an inquiring culture

Inquiring leaders also:

  • Challenge assumptions and beliefs
  • Solicit honest feedback
  • Are willing to suspend their own opinions when presented with new data
  • Are willing to “not know” and “not always be right”

Now for the Complexity

This all sounds great. Who among us wouldn’t like to be that kind of person? It’s also consistent with Jim Collins’s finding, in Good to Great, that humility is a key characteristic of high-performing leaders. 

This inquiring approach feels comfortable, natural and right to me. However, in my experience the actual practice of asking questions as part of an open, inclusive leadership strategy is not quite as simple and straightforward as it seems. What I’ve learned is that as executive director I have to be very careful about how I ask questions about a proposal or suggestion made by another staff member.

The Challenge of Leadership

At times my neutral inquiries have been perceived as backhanded statements of disagreement, especially if I included any questions that challenge assumptions. For example, “Your budget assumes 500 people will register for the conference. How confident are you about that?” may well be heard as, “It’s unrealistic to assume that 500 people will register for the conference.” 

I’ve learned to introduce these questions with a disclaimer, such as, “I don’t necessarily disagree, but I’ve got a few questions” or “Don’t take my questions as disagreement  …” But I don’t always remember to do that all the time, and I resist issuing disclaimers when all I’m trying to do is gather more information. 

Maybe it’s my tone of voice or body language, but I suspect it’s more about my position of authority.

The inquiring leader approach is based on the assumption that most staff within an organization want to play a role in the decision-making processes. For the leadership of a nonprofit, this means that we must find ways to ensure that our inquiries at every stage of the process, an important part of our stewardship, are not heard as a rejection but are rather understood as attempts to foster learning and better mutual decision-making.

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