The intended and unintended power of questions

Jan Kettnaker, EMBA 2011

Jan Kettnaker

What it means to be an inspiring leader? Ask a lot of questions!

As a manager or informal leader you’ve probably received this piece of advice multiple times in your career. In many contemporary management programs and courses, these simple words form an important tool in the future toolkit of the student. The underlying idea is simple; by asking a lot of questions a manager achieves a number of goals. He or she extends his knowledge about a certain topic, employees or co-workers become involved in the subject matter and get to voice their opinions, and hitherto common but not stated workgroup knowledge gets formulated and spread. If you have a new position at your current employer or start at a new employer, the habit of asking questions naturally becomes even more important. And, indeed, working environments where asking questions, not only by managers, is commonplace tend to work better and achieve better results.

However, judging by my own experience, there is an important caveat in the asking questions concept.

For the questions process to be productive the questions need to be sincere and not guiding, the answers honest and replies like ‘I do not know’ allowed. And this, unfortunately, is not always the case at workplaces. Managers use guiding questions to produce certain answers, often to achieve short-term gains. Answers are twisted to conceal crucial components that are sensitive to reveal. And in many environments admitting not to know is still a big no-no. For employees used to these types of workplaces, well-meaning questions will be interpreted as if there is a catch, the answers will be formulated accordingly and the ‘I do not know’ will become a ‘it seems as if that is perhaps not entirely impossible’…

So before you start asking all those good questions, try to figure out what kind of environment you are in and what questions legacy there is.

And if it is not the conducive type, prepare your audience by setting the scene on questions and answers. Only then will the full power of your well thought-through answers be unleashed.

Jan Kettnaker is an EMBA 2011, CEO of PacketFront Software, Sweden

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