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Asking the right questions – the overlooked leadership skill




Leaders are often expected to know all the answers. Asking the right questions can help them to steer conversations and gain insight into critical problems.


Effective leaders rely on strategic thinking to develop and communicate their thoughts, ideas, and plans. By effectively communicating ideas and asking questions as part of the process, leaders can influence others, bring everyone on the same page to support their decisions, and help them achieve desired outcomes.


Leading with questions


Successful organisations are built on a foundation of questioning, not knowing. Many corporate failures are a result of both leaders and employees failing to recognise their own blind spots. When leaders stop questioning and start believing that they know everything about the organisation and their teams, it often begins to stagnate. Blind spots cause a lack of understanding about how their customers perceive their products and services; prevent leaders from seeing new opportunities or noticing problems that should be addressed as soon as possible. On the other hand, asking questions encourages people to speak up and share, which leads to teamwork, better communication, and more effective leadership.


Research by Harvard Business Review suggests that there are four types of questions that work effectively: introductory questions (“How are you?”), mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”), full-switch questions (those that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information). Follow-up questions are especially impactful as they signal that we are listening, care, and want to know more, leading to our conversation partner feeling respected and heard.


Curiosity is the mother of innovation that helps leaders to challenge the status quo and find new, alternative ways for improvements. The ability to ask questions is a leadership skill that shapes and enhances team performance and the culture of an organisation, empowering leaders to pursue answers that can help them find new opportunities and approach challenges with confidence. The more questions we ask, the more answers we receive and the more solutions we uncover, and questions that haven’t been asked before can open the possibility of having many different answers and ways to solve a problem. By asking questions leaders also communicate that questioning is important, and inspire people to identify new opportunities and to ask for help when they need it, which in return creates a culture of learning.


Asking questions to encourage transparency


The increasing speed and complexity of business require paying attention to signals that indicate potential problems, as these can escalate quickly, and cause more harm if ignored in the early stages. Therefore, it is important for leaders to encourage everyone within the organisation to ask questions and create an open-dialogue culture by removing the fear to speak up or challenge the status quo. An open-dialogue culture can be achieved through asking the right questions — what is everyone thinking but no one is saying? What inspired this idea?


By learning to ask powerful and thoughtful questions, leaders are better able to understand their environment, uncover new insights, create a deeper understanding of people’s motivation and skills, encourage innovation and collaboration, drive deeper engagement with customers and suppliers, generate more creativity and spark major breakthroughs in any area of business.


Asking questions is a powerful leadership skill that can help to transform organisational communication and culture. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering training and development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops, and coaching programs, ranging from communication skills to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programs for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programs please contact Simon at simon@askacumen.com.


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