Do you think it would be possible to improve management by asking people questions? In today’s achievement-oriented culture, displays of knowledge are admired. As Dr. Edgar H. Schein told a team of academic interviewers for the March 2011 edition of Academy of Management Learning & Education:

“The whole point of being a leader is that you now ‘know everything.’ Leaders are supposed to know what to do, so people below the leader are going to defer to him or her—let them be the deciders even if they don’t know enough to make good decisions. But in a world where leaders do not know everything, where the subordinates are highly skilled technicians, how are we going to get leaders to admit that they don’t know everything and actually ask for help?”

Take the first step: Banish any obsolete beliefs about omnipotence, and focus on practicing humility, Dr. Schein emphasizes. Asking people questions lets them know the reality that you depend on your subordinates.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with soliciting their feedback (i.e., “Am I doing this correctly? Please tell me if I’m doing something wrong”). Employees will be flattered that you value their advice.

What Is Inquiry?

Professional pollsters, researchers, therapists and executive coaches have dedicated years to refining their inquiry skills. The rest of us take it for granted that we know how to ask questions. We tend to mimic our role models—usually parents, teachers and bosses—who rely on superficial or social questions that are essentially disguised forms of telling:

  • Why weren’t you at home (in class, at the meeting)?
  • How could you screw this up?
  • When did I ever tell you to do this?
  • What were you thinking?

These seemingly open-ended questions are actually quite controlling. If you want someone to reveal the full story, avoid steering conversations in any given direction. Distinguish open inquiry (Dr. Schein’s “Humble Inquiry”) from the three other types of inquiry:

  1. Diagnostic
  2. Confrontational
  3. Process-oriented

Open Inquiry

Open inquiry evolves from authentic interest in another person. We ask questions to encourage honesty and minimize preconceived biases. We have no real agenda, other than to garner information.

Your primary goals are to discover what’s on the other person’s mind, cultivate respect and trust, and find connections in common experiences.

In my work with managers, I find that those who use open inquiry become more informed, closer to people and better prepared to influence outcomes. You can ask questions about:

  • Feelings and reactions
  • Causes and motives
  • Actions
  • Shared systems and situations

The next time you’re in conversation with a colleague or team member, try out a few questions without any agenda. You might be surprised at what you learn. What’s been your experience? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.