Is Asking Questions Motivational--or Just Plain Irritating?

It's OK to ask questions. But be careful not to step on any toes in the process.
4 min read
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How a leader uses questions is an important thing--for questions are very powerful and can be seen as critical or confrontational if they are not phrased and delivered just right. A good leader certainly tries to ask a lot of questions. But sometimes an interest in the facts and a desire to draw out ideas from others can raise defenses and anger others.

Here's an interesting example. Lawrence H. Summers took over the presidency of Harvard University in mid-2001 and immediately began to attract negative publicity and to anger some of the faculty and staff. One highly publicized rift was with famous scholar William Julius Wilson, who threatened to move to Princeton after an angry meeting with his new boss. Wilson was later quoted by The New York Times as saying "his behavior has been quite shocking."

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A surefire way to learn the value of listening: Give the incessant chatter a break. Read "Shut Up, Already!"

Yet Summers had no intention of shocking anyone and was quick to work on patching up this and other early rifts. What had happened to create the widespread impression that this leader was difficult to work with and unwilling to listen to his people? He certainly values listening and wants good communications--he even maintains regular office hours during which students can come speak with him without an appointment, a far more open-door policy than most executives. Like many leaders, Summers may have found that his very position of power makes it difficult to appear truly open and interested as he interacts with his people.

And paradoxically, it may have been Summers' use of questions--a widely prescribed listening tool--that contributed most to his reputation as a poor listener. "If you have a short time with him, it's not too encouraging if the whole time he spends a lot of time challenging your views, even though he may not really believe that," said Trevor Cox, president of Phillips Brooks House, Harvard's umbrella community service group, in The New York Times article. Summers quickly built a reputation of asking blunt and often alarming (to the listeners at least) questions in meetings.

In response, Summers explained: "I think the questioning is a mark of respect for people, an interest in what they have to say. I've always believed you can't do anything without a sense of the pros and cons."

Questioning can, as Summers says, be a mark of respect for those you question. But only if you are focusing on them--thinking about how to draw out their views and sharpen their thoughts. In many cases, leaders find their attention drawn to the decision at hand, and so they blast a series of questions that may help them clarify their own thinking. When you are caught up in your own analysis, you can easily ignore the people side of your work--focusing on the "hard" aspects of the decision and possible outcomes from it instead.

To avoid the question trap Summers seems to have fallen into, it may be wise to jot down your personal ideas and questions in a notebook as you talk--but not voice them right away. Instead, play the friendly reporter role in the conversation: Simply draw out a detailed, thoughtful presentation from the person you are listening to. Use your questions to probe their ideas and feelings, not your own. That is the mark of respectful listening: an obvious, active interest in what the other person's views are, not in developing your own.

OK, OK--you're in a hurry and you want to make a good decision quickly. And you think your people should be respectful of you as well. Fine! But think about this: Who is more likely to give you an open, fair hearing when it comes time to present your views: someone to whom you have listened with full respect and interest, or someone you have cross-examined as if they are just there to brief you, the great decision-maker, and then be led back to their cubicle?

Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of several popular books on business management, marketing and entrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books.

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