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Leading with Questions

Michael J. Marquardt
Professor, George Washington University
President, World Institute for Action Learning
Drucker: The leader of the past
may have been a person
who knew how to tell, but
the leader of the future will
be a person who knows how
to ask
Kotter: Primary difference
between leaders and
managers is that leaders can
ask the right questions
whereas managers answer
those questions. Doing the
right thing is more important
than doing the wrong thing
Center for Creative Leadership:
The ultimate key to
successful leadership is the
leaders ability to ask
questions and create
opportunities for others to
ask questions.
Growing Recognition
of the Importance of Questions
Growing complexity and change negates what
worked for people in traditional, stable
Solving todays problems requires questioning
Einstein and questions
Questions to solve mysteries of the universe (as did
all great inventors
Violin lessons for young child
Time spent in questioning
Have you ever been asked a great
Can you think of a great question that
you asked someone?
Why cant you give me the picture you just
took? Daughter of Edwin Land, inventor of
Polaroid Camera
What might DNA look like in 3D form?
Watson and Crick, Discovery of double helix
What is the most ethical action we might
take? - James Burke, CEO, Johnson &
Why did that apple fall on my head? - Isaac
Newton, led to Newtonian Physics
What would happen if I were on the beam of
light? Albert Einstein, led to E=MC2
How can I get a good hamburger on the
road? Ray Croc, McDonalds
Why are
questions so
What can
questions do
Research on Questioning Leaders
Who were great
leaders who asked
Identified why, when
and how they used
Types of questions
they used
Power of their
Questions Used
for Multiple Purposes
1. To solve problems and make decisions
2. To develop high performing teams
3. To spur innovation and systems thinking
4. To empower employees and customers
5. To develop people around us
6. To build relationships
7. To generate action and learning
Questions Can Solve Problems and
Improve Decision Making
Questions can reframe the
problem/task so that correct
and most critical task is
systemically examined
Generate open, productive
Enable creative, systems-
Assures working on the right
problem and not symptom
Questions allow for
understanding the context as
well as the content of the
problem is critical in problem-
Generate actionable
strategies and commitments
Questions in the
Problem Solving Process

Quantity Quality
Imaginative Analytical
Problems Free Restricted Solutions
Intuitive Intellect
Open-ended Questions G D G Closed-ended
JU Questions
Questions Build
High Performing Teams
Questions build trust, collaboration and cohesion among
team members
Questions help in clarifying and reaching consensus on
goals and actions
Questions help members at different levels of authority
and expertise to provide valuable contributions
Only through questioning each other can a group gain a
common understanding and agreement of the problem,
acquire a senses of each others potential strategies,
and achieve innovative strategies
Questions, asked at the right time and in the right way
provide the glue that brings and holds a group together
Questions Energize People and
Improve Relationships
Questions encourage and
enable others to share and to
We like people who ask us
questions and allows us to ask
them questions
Questions open people
whereas statements causes
resistance and fear
Questions allow us to show
our interest, concern, caring,
and support
Questions tend to unite
whereas statements tend to
create divisions
Questions Generate Learning
Learning>Improved Action
Questions cause the brain
synapses to open and they
remain open until we get the
Allows us to internalize and
tailor the learning so that it is
more permanent and relevant
Questions focuses our
attention and causes us to
listen and reflect more fully
Questions generate learning
even beyond the intention of
the questioner
Questions Develop Leaders
Become a better listener and communicator
Build greater self-awareness and humility
Become better team member and leader
Create continuous learning and improvement
Build systems-thinking and creativity
Demonstrate patience and respect for others
Improve the creation and sharing of visions
Change the questioner as much as the person
Every leadership skill can be enhanced through
the use of questions
Why Dont
We Ask
Three Main Reasons
Why People Do Not Ask Questions
1. Negative psychological experience with asking
or answering questions that has generated a
fear and discomfort with questions
2. Lack of skills in asking or answering questions
Lack of experience or opportunities
Lack of training
Lack of modeling or mentoring
3. Corporate cultures and working environments
which discourage questions, especially those
that challenge existing assumptions and
What Happens When We Do Not
Ask Questions
Bay of Pigs
Lost lives
Power of GREAT Questions


Causethepersontofocus and Enablepeopletobetterviewthe

tostretch situation
Causedeepreflection Open doorsinthemind andget
Challengetakenforgranted peopletothinkmoredeeply
assumptions thatpreventpeoplefrom Testassumptionsandcauseindividualstoexplore
actinginnewandforcefulways whytheyactinthewaythattheydo aswellaswhy
Generatecourageandstrength theychoosetotakeaction
Leadtobreakthroughthinking Generatepositive andpowerfulaction

Empowering vs. Disempowering
Empowering questions get people to think and allow them
to discover their own answers, thus developing self-
responsibility and transference of ownership for the
results. Such questions can help them to realize how
they can contribute to the whole.

Disempowering questions close the gateway to identifying

paths to success. Such questions prevent people from
having the opportunity to clarify misunderstanding and or
achieve goals. They threaten peoples self esteem,
causing them to see themselves as part of the problem
rather than the source of possible solutions.
Identify a
question and
convert it into
an empowering
Disempowering Empowering
Questions Questions
What have you
Why are you behind accomplished so far that
schedule? you are most pleased
Whats the problem with What key things need to
this project? happen to achieve the
Dont you know better What kind of support do
than that? you need to assure
Judging vs. Learning Mindset
in Questioning
Our mindset frames how see the world. Mindsets define the parameters of our actions
and interaction with others. They are a determinant in the types of questions we ask
ourselves and others.

In the Learner mindset, the questioner:

seeks to be responsive to lifes circumstances
seeks to understand the past as a way of guiding actions in the future
exudes optimism, possibilities and hope
asks genuine questions
relates to others in win-win manner

In the Judger mindset, the questioner:

tends to be reactive
focus on the past to blame
exudes pessimism
tends to believe they know the answers
ask questions that put others on the defensive
relates to others in win-lose manner
Identify a judgmental
question and a learning
Judging Questions Learning Questions
Why is this a failure? Whats useful about
Whats wrong with this?
you? What possibilities
Whose fault is it? does this open up?
Why cant you get it What can we learn
right? from this?
Appreciative Inquiry
in Asking Questions
Focus on the positive and
not the negative
Find what has worked well
and has gone well
Instead of focusing on what
is not working or what is
wrong, explore what can be
improved and how it can be
improved What can we do
better rather than What
did we do wrong or poorly?
Open-ended Questions
Used to solicit additional information from people. They are broad
and require more than one or two word responses
Give others the freedom to respond.
Encourage people to expand others and allow exploration of whats
important to them and what is comfortable for the to reveal.
Facilitate people to do the work of self-reflection and problem
Invite others to tell their story in their own words.
Help establish rapport while gathering information with increased
Types of Open-ended Questions
Clarifying: improving the clarity of a message or statement;
encouraging more elaboration How exactly would you like this
Reflective: challenging basic assumptions Why do we always do
it this way? Has this ever been tried?
Probing: Getting more details; going deeper Can you elaborate
on why this is happening?
Creating connections: asking for systems perspectives What
will be the consequences of this action?
Exploratory: opening up new avenues and insights that lead to new
explorations Have you considered such a source?
Analytical: examining cause and effect, not just symptoms Why
has this happened?
Affective: encouraging sharing of feelings How do you feel/how
excited are you about this strategy?
Examples of Open-ended
Open-ended questions should begin with words such as Why, How,
When or What. Ultimately open-ended questions can help
people think analytically and critically.


1. What do you think about..?

2. What more could you say about.?
3. What might happen if..?
4. Why do you think it is not feasible to ?
5. How you intend to resolve this issue?
6. When would be the best time to invest in..?
7. When you say difficult, what do you mean?
8. How will you use the information?
9. Where are possibilities have you left out?
10. What are you trying to understand?
Closed Questions
Although closed questions are usually
inhibiting and less effective than open-
ended questions, they can be useful in
specific situations.

Limit debate and make decisions Is the team ready

to make a decision?
Find out specific information -- When is the proposal
Identify preferences Does the team like Plan A or
Plan B?
Follow-up Questions
Greatest power and
benefit occurs from
follow-up questions
Enhance the
competency of the
group and individuals
Generate double and
triple loop learning
Why, why not, how, an
Unhelpful Questions
Leading Questions Isnt it true?
Multiple-Choice Questions When the team
doesnt make the proper connection desired by the
coach. Feels like an interrogation.
Judgmental Questions
Why did you make mistakes on this issue?
Can someone help Andrew understand this point?
Why is the team taking so long to come up with a
What are the
of an effective
1. Commitment to ask
Continually ask effective initial
and follow-up questions
Ask questions that make
people think and feel
Demonstrate to others that you
believe in the power of
Use a gentle, not arrogant,
style of questioning
Search for questions that
create possibilities for
significant learnings and
breakthrough actions
2. Courage and authenticity
Asking questions is not always
easy, especially the tough but
necessary questions
Need to be firm, but not
intimidated by the rank,
expertise, or character of the
person questioned
What happens when questions
are not asked Titanic,
Challenger, Bay of Pigs
Be able to follow-up to
determine if his question has
been understood and
Demonstrate authenticity and
commitment to getting
3. Timing for questions
Find the ideal time for
intervening with questions
Too early insufficient
experience or awareness
to adequately respond
and thus missed
opportunity for learning
Too late frustration on
part of individual or group
and missed opportunities
for learning and changes
4. Active listening
Being able to hear what is said as well as
what is not being said
Requires astute observation and note-
taking to be in touch and in tune with who
is saying what, how, when and to whom
Careful listening enables you to acquire a
helicopter-level perspective and holistic
Able to focus on the problem and as well
as on the development of the group
and/or individuals
5. Strong commitment to learning
Belief that learning is
critical to improving
actions, and that
questions are the best
way to enable others
and self to learn
Great leaders are eager
to see individuals,
groups and
organizations learn
Understand and
appreciate how adults
learn and the
importance of creating
a learning environment
6. Positive, supportive attitude
toward others
To be an effective questioner, you must
show caring and respect toward each
Concerned with the well-being of each
Committed to their success
Empathetic and supportive
See the potential in each person
Believe that everyone can change and
7. Self-awareness
and Self-confidence
Questioner is cognizant of his/her
strengths and limitations, and the impact
of his questions
Confident, yet humble when asking
Willing to learn and change self
Can handle rivalries, distrust and anger
Recognizes the power and importance of
How to Develop
Questioning Competency
Start by becoming more aware of the questions you ask
now and of the questions other people ask of you
Ask yourself more questions silently.
Before asking someone else a question, ask yourself
what do I want this question to accomplish?
Encourage others to ask you questions
Continuous practicing and application of questioning
improves the skill of asking better and better questions
The quality of the questions can be developed if we
regularly ask ourselves
What is the quality of our questions?
What is preventing us from asking better questions?
How could we ask better questions?
Training for Questioning Skills
Although questioning is
perhaps the most important
skill for leaders and leadership,
few of us ever received such
training in school or in the
Most powerful and effective
way to develop questioning
skills is via action learning
Action learning uses questions
extensively to solve problems,
build leadership skills, and
create powerful teams
The Architecture
for Great Questions
1. Linguistic construction of the question, in
order of generating reflection what,
when, where, which, how, why
2. Scope of the question individual,
group, organization, community, nation,
3. Assumptions within questions explicit,
implicit, altering; e.g., How would we
approach this problem if we were
Great leaders ask
great questions
Great questions
create great
A statement may
be a lost
opportunity to lead