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Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership and resilience.

 

High-impact leaders are insatiably curious — about themselves, the people who work for and with them, and the world in which they operate and beyond. Inquisitive leaders are effective because building knowledge and wisdom are essential to professional success.

Naturally curious people ask lots of questions and take time to reflect on the answers. Even if you aren’t naturally curious, you can build this type of reflection into both your agenda and the agendas of your employees by asking so-called ritual questions (example: “What have I learned today?”). Although ritual questions are not widely used in organizational settings, they can be a simple tool for improving your leadership skills and style.

Ritual questions give your brain time to process the torrent of data you encounter every day. According to Colonel Eric Kail, the former course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, this reflection “is an effort to understand how the events of our life shape the way in which we see the world, ourselves, and others.”

Taking time to reflect can feel uncomfortable, but once you push past the fear of not being busy and realize the benefits of a deeper level of thinking, you can linger longer on these questions. Even taking time out for as little as 10 minutes of quiet thought each day can help you tap into the vast stores of information buried in your subconscious and open yourself to sometimes surprising insights. Using ritual questions such as “When was I at my best today? When was I at my worst?” can help both prompt and guide your thinking.

Ritual questions such as “When was I at my best today? When was I at my worst?” can help guide your thinking.

And although high-powered analytics can generate reams of data, it is easy to fall prey to chasing the usual generic-query suspects, such as conversion rates or viewership rankings, and overlooking anomalies that can provoke deeper inquiry. Instead, a ritual question such as “What do we know today that we didn’t know yesterday?” will push you to probe more intensely. After all, “nothing” is not a satisfying answer — and it likely isn’t accurate, either.

True leaders build capacity and capability in people for tackling tomorrow’s challenges while meeting today’s goals; it is a matter of cultivating performance rather than simply extracting value. Answering ritual questions will help build the self-awareness necessary for growth in both you and your team.

Here are four ritual questions that I have found most useful for leaders to ask themselves:

• “What encounter did I handle particularly well today and why?”
• “What encounter do I believe the other person in the exchange thinks I handled well and why?”
• “What encounter did I handle poorly today and why?”
• “What encounter do I believe the other person in the exchange thinks I handled poorly and why?”

By exploring both positive and negative experiences from multiple perspectives, you develop a more nuanced and dimensional understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and fears. Such exploration will also help you navigate the constant pull between being who you are as a leader and who others need you to be.

And while ritual questions are asked regularly, they are not cookie-cutter. Answering them must require thoughtful consideration. The best ritual questions are open-ended in order to promote contemplation and discovery. “How are we progressing against the sales goal?” may be regularly asked, but it does not rise to the level of a ritual question any more than “How’s the weather?”

If daily practice is too much for you, try setting aside time for asking weekly ritual questions — doing it any less frequently will make it harder to detect recurring themes and engage in timely follow-up. If, however, you have standing biweekly or monthly meetings that can’t be made more frequent, weave ritual questions into these, and carve out some time in the meeting intervals to check in with yourself. The important thing is to establish the discipline and experience the benefits.

Integrating ritual questions into team meetings and one-on-one meetings with your direct reports can help everyone become more self-aware and grow.

One-on-one ritual questions inform performance management and alleviate the pain of a once-a-year assessment. Include questions such as “What have you accomplished since we last met?” “What’s challenging you?” and “How can I best help you meet that challenge?” in each meeting. When well-documented, the answers comprise a record of achievement and a roadmap for development. These particular questions frame your relationship as one where success is celebrated and obstacles are openly discussed. It gives you the opportunity to intervene early where necessary and provide needed ideas or other resources. As you continue to ask these questions over time, their ritual nature encourages your subordinates to reflect in preparation for meeting with you.

With your team, ask group-oriented versions of these questions, such as “What can we learn from a collaborative success from the past week?” or “What obstacle can we only overcome together?” These not only spur conversation but emphasize why you are meeting, and working, as a team.

Don’t relegate your leadership development to periodic courses or workshops (as useful as those can be). Expanding your capacity and capability as a leader is an ongoing endeavor. Using ritual questions will create frequent opportunities to hone your skills, deepen your understanding, and increase your impact.

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Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders