| |

Questions That Leaders Should Ask

by Jennifer McCoy

Do your staff expect you to know all the answers? Talk to many leaders, at any level, and they will say they can feel the weight of responsibility on their shoulders, even if they enjoy their role. Do you feel the same, for much of the time anyway?

The burden seems to come from several directions: from the targets set by their superiors/bosses, from the challenges they set themselves to achieve standards; also from their belief that their staff expect them to know all the answers. Worse they seem to accept that challenge.

How often have you accepted responsibility:

  • for a problem that's arisen in a team project?
  • for doing all the research, prior to making a decision?

How does this happen? There are many times of course when you do need to take on full responsibility; perhaps though, not always. If you look at the problem another way: Would your staff know more about the situation than you do? Could it be an opportunity for them to learn new skills? Might they actually enjoy doing the job?

There's a good deal of evidence about what staff want from their workplaces, what engages and motivates them. An Australian study undertaken by Sydney University on behalf of the Business Council of Australia, Simply the Best Workplaces in Australia, found highest among the factors common to all 'excellent' workplaces, that Australian workers, no matter their cultural background or the nature of their work, want to feel respected, want to be able to 'have a say', and to be trusted with responsibility.

Accepting all the responsibility is largely a leadership habit, learned from leaders observed in the past. Changing a habit simply means knowing where to start and then practising the new behaviours.

Next time someone comes to you for an answer, try asking this question: "What do you think we could do?"

Asking for their opinion allows them an opportunity to 'have a say', it is respectful and demonstrates your trust in their responsibility. It may also save you time and work.

Asking a question is a powerful communication skill for leaders. Irwin Rubin describes them as a skill for 'pulling' ideas and opinions from others instead of always 'pushing' your ideas forward. Asking "What's your thinking on.." or "I'd be interested in your thoughts on..", encourages involvement and shows respect.

A question like "Could you give me a few examples to help me understand?" helps you to clarify a situation, while still leaving responsibility with the other person.

Asking "What can we learn from this mistake?" eliminates fear of blame, and also encourages reflection with responsibility.

Adding "How can I support you?" opens the door for discussion about where responsibilities can be shared, at the same time demonstrating your respect and trust.

Now that you've started, see The Power of Questions for some additional ideas.

Sharing the responsibility, consciously refusing to take the problem, the 'monkey', onto your own shoulders, will reduce your burdens immensely. It just takes practice.


1 Hull, D. and Read, V. (2003) Simply the best workplaces in Australia. University of Sydney 2 Rubin, I. The ABCs of effective communication. Temenos. 3 McCoy, J. The power of questions. 4 Blanchard,K, Oncken, W and Burrows, H. (1991) The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey