In today’s world, there is pressure from all sides for leaders to have the right answers. There is internal pressure to be right, as well as the expectation of others for leaders to have the answers when there are issues to be resolved.
Often, decisions are made without sufficient exploration of alternatives, resulting in less than satisfactory outcomes.
When faced with a problem or issue to resolve, seldom do leaders begin by asking: “What are the questions we need to answer before making a decision?” Leaders are conditioned to tell, rather than to ask.
We have yet to recognize the wisdom expressed by Albert Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes!”
Most of us learned at a very young age that the goal was to have the right answers. We remember being in classes, hands raised, looking around to see who else might know the answer. Having the answer set us apart.
The message was successfully imbedded: right answers trump good questions.
Is there hope?
Determining the “proper question to ask” is an art. It is a discipline rarely taught. However, I was surprised and encouraged by a recent conversation with my colleague’s niece, Maeve Williams (age 11). I asked her if she thought that it was better to have good questions or good answers. Maeve did not skip a beat! She said: “I think good questions….A good question can make your answer better…It can broaden your thinking…” When I asked Maeve if she thought that good questions or good answers were rewarded in school, she said: “Hmm…mostly good answers”. I wondered about whether or not Maeve was learning how to formulate good questions. She said her math teacher was teaching students how to ask good questions to figure out big story math problems. Maeve gives us hope that the next generation of students may be learning the value of good questions, and that Maeve’s wise perspective is the rule and not the exception.
Questions that matter
How do we know what kind of questions will advance possibilities, encourage creativity and inspire ourselves and others to work with energy and enthusiasm?
Marilee Adams, Ph.D, author of “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life,” distinguishes Judger Questions from Learner Questions. She suggests that along with our programming to have the right answers, all too often we lean into Judger Questions that result in a mindset that is reactive, judgmental and inflexible. Examples of Judger Questions within an organization might be: “Whose fault is it?” or “Haven’t we been there, done that?”
In contrast, Learner Questions might include: “Given the mistake that was made, what action do we need to take now?” “What question, if answered, will guide us to the next steps?”
Learner Questions invite a mindset that is thoughtful, open, flexible. Learner Questions do not invite defensiveness or attack.
A significant skill in leadership coaching is the ability to ask questions that matter. When I began an executive coaching relationship with Tom, a CEO who is preparing to retire from his current position, I was struck by his focus on “What will I do next?” He is nearly a year away from retiring and yet he was so future-focused that he could have missed a very rich present. That’s not to suggest that his question isn’t important and worthy of exploration. I invited him to consider questions that could help him to focus on the present while at the same time, test out future possibilities.
He now reflects on questions that include: “What do I want to offer in this final year of service to this organization?” “What difference will I make for the organization?” “How will that make a difference for me?”
At the same time, he is exploring future possibilities by asking trusted colleagues and friends what they think his strengths are, rather than asking them what they think he should do when he retires. His strength and passion will guide his next steps.
Through questions and reflection, Tom is living in the present, mentoring leaders in his organization and gently exploring how he will write the next chapter of his life.
He is asking Learner Questions.
I was inspired to offer these reflections by members of our team. Over the course of the last number of years, they have invited questions that have advanced our work. They have respectfully invited me to consider viewing points that I might not consider through their thoughtful, insightful questions. They have reminded me that when we collectively risk asking the tough questions, we all live more courageously and authentically in the present and advance a future that supports our best work on behalf of our clients.
Rainer Marie Rilke, poet and author, offers this wisdom: “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”
What questions will you ask today?