“Asking questions keeps people engaged, which is paramount when you are trying to influence someone’s thinking or behavior.” That’s the conclusion of a ten-year-old Harvard Business Review article by Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe. But the idea that leaders can have more impact by asking the right questions is much older. As early as 375 B.C., Plato emphasized the importance of teaching children how to ask and answer questions. That laid the foundation of a 2,400-year-old belief that not only are some questions more insightful than others, but some people are also more entitled to ask questions than others.
Across key societal institutions, such as courtrooms, classrooms, and newsrooms, we have an unspoken contract that says only lawyers, teachers, and journalists are entitled to ask questions. In a business context, that entitlement has been enjoyed chiefly by corporate leaders and HR. Part of the authority of leaders is that their authority isn’t questioned, which means employees get to react to lots of questions—in surveys, interviews, and coaching sessions—but rarely get to proactively ask them.
The conventional wisdom has always been that leaders who ask the right questions will get the right answers to make the right decisions. In my 20 years researching the nature and impact of questions, I have come to realize that not only is the conventional wisdom false, but it can also damage companies. Depriving employees of the opportunity to ask questions and reflect on their roles narrows the scope for developing insights and influencing behaviors.
The less time people in an organization spend reflecting and asking questions, the less they align with one another on what’s important, and the greater the risk that they are busy doing things that have no impact. Questions don’t undermine authority and trust; in fact, questions help build those qualities. To unleash the true power of questions, I have identified four ways to use them to help your employees be more productive and more engaged.
1. Direct everyone’s attention to the same problem at the same time.
There is more time than you think to reflect on actions if leaders make reflection part of the decision-making process. For example, if a company is going to introduce a new product or process, managers might want to garner employees' insights into what's working and what needs improvement. Inviting employees to share their thoughts and ideas will help the company mobilize quickly around strategic priorities. Even when time is of the essence, strategic alignment should be a top priority.
The less time people in an organization spend reflecting and asking questions, the less they align with each other on what’s important, and the greater the risk that they are busy doing things that have no impact.
Recently, highly ranked officers of the Royal Danish Defence College in Copenhagen sought my advice on how to improve the questions they ask in situations where both leaders and staff are dealing with unpredictable threats. The standard procedure in these high-stakes moments, despite the need to act urgently, includes a Q&A session during which leaders and employees reflect on possible actions. The leaders wanted to get at why people decided to take certain actions in a crisis, not why the crisis event happened in the first place. So they suggested that instead of focusing on the event itself by asking “How could this happen?”, they would rephrase the question and ask: “What made you make this decision?” It took the emphasis away from the event and prompted people to think about the intentions behind their own actions.
Unlike most business leaders, these officers didn’t ask me what to ask their staff. Instead, they asked me how to ask questions in a way that would make it easier for their staff to share what’s most important at that critical moment. Rather than looking for the right questions, expecting them to lead to the right answers and the right decisions, they were looking for ways to create a space for people to focus on the same problems at the same time, trusting that if people have space and time to reflect and learn from one another, everybody will make better decisions.
At times of high uncertainty and ubiquitous threat—be it changing markets, new technologies, or fast-growing competitors—everyone needs to be in agreement on what is most important at that moment. This empowers everyone to respond to their maximum potential.
2. Invite everyone to ask their own questions.
The belief that there are right and wrong questions is hardwired into the methods we use to measure employee engagement, leadership performance, and customer satisfaction. That’s a problem. We are so used to questionnaires and interviews that we rarely stop to ask if survey designers and HR consultants necessarily know what questions are the most important to ask.
“Our strategy is built on innovation,” says Teija Saari, head of the Center of Organizational Development at Grundfos, the Danish manufacturer of water pumps. “And we know that no one can have all the right questions or right answers when building and delivering pioneering products and services in this VUCA [volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous] world. Therefore, we need to constantly learn. And learning happens when diverse people are brought together to work on common topics and when those people are curious to understand each other’s points of view.”
So, when Grundfos recently launched a big reorganization, moving from geographical units to global customer segments—a shift that affected more than half the company’s office workers—the implementation team didn’t interview leaders about their plans for how to make the transformation a success. Instead, the team invited leaders to ask each other questions about their first-100-day plans. Questions like, “How do we keep experienced employees engaged during the transition period?” and “What is the best way to move customer accounts between different sales teams?” made the leaders focus on the elements that were most important to them. For some, the crucial element turned out to be ensuring psychological safety on their team. For others, it was giving customer engagement a higher priority.
Saari stresses the difference between doing interviews and making room for people to ask their own questions: “The answers I give in an interview or a survey are gone the second I’ve answered, but when I think about what questions I would like to ask, it goes deeper. The same is true when I receive a question from one of my colleagues. I reflect on how to reply, and the topic takes root inside me.”
According to Saari, the 100-day plans that came out of these collective reflection spaces played a key role in Grundfos being able to speed up the organizational transformation, resulting in record-high employee engagement and customer satisfaction only nine months after the new organization was launched.
Democratizing the power of questions—by making room for everyone to ask their own—helps ensure impact.
3. Anchor the problem in everyday conversations.
Tapping into the wisdom of the crowd means recognizing that reflection should not be a “meta” exercise detached from employees’ everyday concerns. For a company the size of Grundfos, which has 19,000 employees worldwide, achieving that kind of reflection has required a technology solution that lets people collaborate virtually on solving the company’s most important problems. It’s built on a three-step method:
Step 1. Leadership sets the strategic direction and opens participation to all.
As part of its strategic goal to become a world-class learning organization, Grundfos wanted to broaden its network of learning ambassadors. Instead of sending out a survey asking the existing network of 80 or so ambassadors to answer a set of predetermined questions, a sponsor team consisting of three top executives invited everyone in the company to contribute to a digital conversation on the topic.
Step 2. Employees exchange questions and answers one on one.
The 670 employees and people leaders who participated used a platform that prompts participants to ask one opening question of one of their colleagues. Each participant decides what they ask and whom they ask. The only rule is that questions must be relevant to the topic at hand. Participants reply, then ask a new question of another participant. The question relay goes on for several days, allowing people with different schedules and in different time zones to join in. By making the dialogue asynchronous, Grundfos created a collective reflection space in the midst of employees’ everyday work and conversations.
Step 3. The conversational and behavioral data gets analyzed and shared.
The participants exchanged a total of 1,195 questions and 905 answers over a five-day period. (The discrepancy owes to the fact that each participant got to ask a new question after providing an answer.) That’s 2,100 unique inputs on a strategic topic that in the past would have been confined to a small group of learning professionals. The conversational data—question type, keyword frequency, distribution of questions among teams, and so on—was analyzed and shared with participants with the help of an AI tool that helped them navigate the results. Those results included a network visualization that showed which teams were asking which other teams questions, and an interactive word cloud that allowed participants to explore the dominant topics that emerged among the teams.
Together, the results created a picture of what is important to employees and what kind of questions they’re asking. “There is no single person in this world who knows all the answers,” Saari explains. “But in a big population like the Grundfos workforce, there are people who have answers to some of the questions. And we can utilize the wisdom of the crowd by creating spaces where people can connect peer-to-peer to share their experiences and learnings—and help each other move forward together.”
4. Use data to make sure everyone is on the same quest.
The data collected via a Q&A relay like the one Grundfos conducted gives insights into what a large population of the workforce deems important. By comparing what they ask with how they answer one another’s questions, you get a better understanding of what helps and hinders progress.
For example, the data Grundfos collected from its learning dialogue exercise (specifically, the word cloud, pictured above) showed that a lot of leaders and employees confused learning and formal training. Learning is the accumulation of knowledge on the job, whereas formal training targets the acquisition of a specific skill. This insight changed the way the company thought about hands-on experiential learning. Leaders and employees now recognize it as an important driver for improvement and innovation.
Saari describes the benefit of such questioning exercises this way: “Having these digital reflection spaces fosters communication and dialogue in our organization that would not happen otherwise. By making room for people’s questions and providing spaces for reflection, we help people discover new ways of thinking and seeing the world, thereby delivering new innovations to solve the world’s water and climate challenges.”
Making reflection an integral part of the workday instead of yet another task to fit into a busy schedule will help companies understand where and how they need to adjust their business practices. And more companies will thrive when leaders focus not just on what questions to ask, but on who gets to ask them.
- Pia Lauritzen is an advisor to executives and cofounder of Qvest, a technology company that developed a platform for ensuring strategic alignment. A native of Denmark, Lauritzen has a Ph.D. in philosophy, has authored several books about leadership and questions, and is a regular columnist for Finans, Denmark’s largest business newspaper. Her 2019 TEDx talk is titled “What you don’t know about questions.”