No, I didn’t just get better looking…I have a torrid travel schedule over the next few weeks and have enlisted a few friends to pinch-hit with guest posts in my absence. First up is Wally Bock, who while being my senior looks 10 years younger. I really hate that, but I digress… For those of you not familiar with Wally, you’re in for a real treat. Wally is a seasoned pro well known for his keen insights on leadership and management. The hidden bonus is that Wally is also one of the best writers I know. Wally is the author of several books and The Working Supervisor’s Support Kit. He also shares his advice and information for leaders at all levels at the Three Star Leadership Blog, and you can follow Wally on Twitter @wallybock. Today’s post from Wally is on the topic of using astute questions to become a more effective leader. Enjoy…

I’m a recovering “I’ve-got-all-the-answers” boss. When I started out, I thought that was my job. The people who worked for me would bring me questions. I, in my greater management wisdom, would answer them. It took far too long for me to discover that having all the answers is an enabling behavior. It allows and encourages your team members to give up thinking for themselves and sharing ideas. And it creates a culture of dependence that increases your workload and decreases your team’s productivity.

I should have known better. My father was a pastor and we often hosted both dinner parties and receptions for members of the church. Before each one, my mother prepped my sister and me with the questions we might ask each guest. The questions would encourage the guest to talk. There were two outcomes. First, I learned a ton about a lot of things. Second, my sister and I both gained a reputation in the church as “excellent conversationalists.”

Asking more questions can help you do a better job as a boss. Not any question will serve, though.

Avoid what I call “Mrs. McKinley” questions. Mrs. McKinley was my third-grade teacher. Whenever Mrs. McKinley asked a question you could be sure of two things. You could be sure that there was an answer. You could be sure that Mrs. McKinley already had it. Asking Mrs. McKinley questions is worse than just having the answers. Your team members will catch on quickly that you are only pretending to want their input.

Ask questions that encourage participation and ideas. Try questions like: “What do you think?” and “How do you think we should handle that?” Ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation. That’s how you develop relationships with your team members. Follow my mom’s advice. Ask questions about things your team member is interested in.

Ask questions that help you analyze a situation thoroughly. American managers tend to want to skip the analysis phase and jump right to action. Resist the temptation. Ask questions that root out unspoken assumptions and identify all the important issues. Try a structured set, like the journalists’ “Who?” “What?” “When?” “Where?” “Why?” and “How?” Or ask questions that require a narrative to answer. Instead of “What’s the problem?” ask, “What’s the story of this situation?”

Ask sets of standard questions that make sure you cover all the key elements in your planning. I like a set originally published as Innovation Styles by Dr. William Miller. His research identified four questions that people asked about change and innovation. He discovered that the people/projects that were more successful tended to ask more of the four questions.

  1. What’s the goal or destination?
  2. How will we get there?
  3. Who is and needs to be involved?
  4. What would be fun to try?

In today’s knowledge economy, being an “I’ve-got-all-the-answers” boss is simply not going to work. Instead, use questions to get every brain in the game and to analyze situations quickly and accurately.

Thanks to Wally for today’s post…