Lead by Asking Questions

posted a year ago

At my going away party at my last job, a few of my (now former) coworkers asked if I had tips or learnings after being a manager for the first time. Here is what I said.

Danish Parenting

When I became a manager, I read a lot of books. It formed a baseline, but the canon of software management is missing a few important ideas. I found many of those ideas in an unlikely place.

I highly recommend that managers read The Danish Way of Parenting. While the subject of the book is parenting, the pages are full of tips on communicating, building trust, goal setting, reframing, course-correcting, bonding as a group, mentoring, and so on.

There is one other idea that I did not see discussed in parenting books or otherwise. The default sentence form of a leader should be question form.

Lead by Asking Questions

In order to illustrate this idea, I will start by telling you how to lead.

The best way to lead a team is by asking questions and wondering aloud.

Asking questions encourages critical thinking and participation. You tap into the collective intelligence of the group. Stating opinions presumes you have the best idea.

If you ask your team questions, you will uncover gaps in knowledge. It will highlight areas to provide more context.

Avoid giving marching orders. It encourages obedience and stifles agency. You should not directly tell people what to do.

You should try it.

Did that work? Will you change your management style? Probably not.

Now I will ask questions.

Have you ever been wrong? Were you wrong as a group or alone?

Has there been a time when you had an idea that you didn't share? How come? Maybe you weren't 100% confident, or it felt outside your domain, or the leader already wanted something else. If someone had asked, would you have shared?

Has there been a time when someone didn't understand you fully? How long did it take you to realize they weren't on the same page?

Has there been a time when someone told you exactly what to do? How did that make you feel? Did you appreciate the instructions or did you feel like you were being micromanaged?

What kind of culture do you want? Is it possible that your sentence form has an impact on how the team thinks and operates?

There are intrinsic benefits of asking questions.

  • The question form makes it nearly impossible to tell someone what to do.
  • The other person has to reply with an answer.
  • In order to provide an answer they have to think and engage.

Which makes asking questions a powerful tool for managers.