What’s the forgotten leadership competency you can’t afford to neglect? Informed Curiosity.
There’s no lack of research that tells us that asking questions is one of the top skills of effective leaders. So why are so many leaders still so bad at it? Why is this top leadership competency so neglected?
When leaders don’t ask questions—or stick to safe, superficial ones—it blocks innovation, robs team members of the chance to feel heard and valued, and keeps the leader in a fixed rather than growth mindset.
Yet, there is still powerful pressure to conform to the old-school trope of a “confident” leader with all the answers. And if we don’t challenge it now, we risk raising a new generation of leaders who struggle to access the power of open and honest collaboration with their teams.
Here are three ways leaders can get better at asking questions.
1. Ask Big Questions
Many leaders avoid asking questions because they feel pressure to look like they have all the answers. One way to bust out of this mindset? Practice asking “Big Questions.” Rather than asking about the current activity of the organization, ask about new opportunities. Questions like “How can we deeply personalize our customer experience?” or “What is a game-changing opportunity that could create much more value than we have delivered in the past?”
These “Big Questions” can alleviate worries that the leader should have all the answers because they invite innovation and collaboration. And, by their nature, no one person can have the answer. This article in the Harvard Business Review has an excellent list of “big questions” to consider.
2. Double-Down on Follow-Ups.
In the hierarchy of good questions, follow-up questions are right on top. What better way to let your team members know you have heard them than by asking a follow-up question? In fact, research done at the Harvard Business School shows that, compared to other types of questions, “follow-up questions seem to have a special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more.”
Asking follow-up questions one-on-one can feel intuitive and help communication flow freely. But leaders can forget that team members may struggle to speak up in meetings, so peppering them with follow-ups could backfire. In this case, try thanking them for their question, restating it to ensure you understood, and throwing it to the group to discuss and follow up. This shows you’re listening, you value the questioner, and it opens the door for innovative ideas from the group. It’s a win-win-win.
3. Be ok with “I don’t know.”
The way we answer questions is just as important as how we ask them. For many leaders, it’s incredibly challenging to utter that most difficult of all answers…the dreaded “I don’t know.” As leaders rise in the hierarchy of their organizations, they become encased in an echo chamber where people are less willing to challenge them or answer their questions transparently. Egos take over, and eventually, the organization suffers.
One way to keep this from happening in your organization is by focusing on how you answer questions. When you, as a leader, model transparency and vulnerability in communication, a.k.a. saying “I don’t know” when appropriate, it signals to your organization that it is safe for them to do the same. When we stop posturing that we know everything, we can truly access the power of open and honest collaboration with our teams.