Often times, when I ask people in organizations to list their attributes or what classify them as a high performing organization, the list is always long. Organizations on their own also invest in so many things or areas they think will make them high performing at least by their own assessment. However, one key attribute – that is critical to superior performance, innovation, transformation, growth, new discoveries and new ways of doing things has been kept off the radar all these years. And that is “creating a culture of questioning”. Intentionally, let’s ask ourselves; in our organizations do we have a “strong culture of questioning” for everyone to adopt?
In this era of competitiveness where every organization is trying hard to deliver customer value, a lasting advantage organizations will have over others is the ability of their employees (regardless of roles, units or departments) to ask smart, tough or thought provoking questions. Every transformation, innovation or initiative stem from understanding or knowing the right questions to ask. Conversely, most failures in organizations have occurred because someone was unwilling to ask questions about things going wrong, things he/she does not understand, things that show great concern (and if not resolved can cause serious problems), customers were not asked the right questions etc. Yes, it is true that thought is what precedes change, but what is more important is to know that all thinking is stimulated by questions.
Does your organization have a strong corporate culture of questioning as opposed to depending only on answers? Frankly and sometimes, it appears better and more respectful to always provide answers to customers, managers and even business owners. This also explains why salespeople are quick to provide impressive answers too often and eventually do not win the business. The business landscape of today requires people who will not just provide answers, but know how to ask smart questions (and problem revealing questions). Little wonder Robert Focazio, (former national vice president of sales, AT & T) once said, “If you improve your questions by 10%, you increase your sales and productivity by 20%…and that’s being conservative. I understand, the urge to appear smart always drives us to seem to be providing answers where we ought to ask questions (or even listen) in order to be on the same page with our managers and customers alike. The former CEO of Google (Eric Schmidt) knew the importance of having a corporate culture of questioning when he said: “We run the company by questions, not by answers”. My personal understanding of this is that great companies can only be built by asking questions that have not been asked before as opposed to providing answers that have already existed. Today, we all know how well Google is doing.
But someone might say, making our organization to have a culture of questioning is something we can just introduce in our organization casually and that does not require serious effort or investment. I think any organization that thinks in that manner has missed it, because asking smart question and asking it in the right way (to yield result) is an art that should be learnt by organizations. Organizational activities like marketing, hiring the right staff, problem solving, improved performance, negotiation, and improving the corporate culture etc can be greatly enhanced when employees have mastered the art of right questioning. Without learning the art, organizations might only be building up questions that will always backfire. These include disempowering questions, lousy questions, dangerous questions, manipulative questions, prying questions, showing off with questions, asking at the wrong time etc. So what employees need now is a comprehensive guide that will sharpen their questioning skills – that way they will know what to ask, what not to ask and how to ask the right questions in almost any managerial or marketing situation.
Institutionalizing the right culture of questioning in organizations has the power to dramatically improve employees’ performances. By the right culture of questioning, I mean questions that empowers or empowering questions. Unknowingly, some leaders and managers contribute to the poor performances of their people whenever they ask them “disempowering questions”. A case in point was a manager of a bank who in my presence asked his staff member – Why do you always fail to meet your target? Yes, I know that achieving one’s target is very critical and everyone is expected to achieve his or her target, but what could be suboptimal is asking for the right thing the wrong way. I told the manager that he has the right to ask his staff member any question regarding his performance. However, it is better to ask him questions that will open him up or empower him for better performances than asking him disempowering questions that will end up worsening his performances. This is an area most managers need to improve upon – when it comes to performance matters; it has been our dominant pattern to ask disempowering questions – most times out of annoyance or pressures from our superiors). Back to the manager’s case, I encouraged him to always use empowering questions on his staff members that have issues with performances. Therefore, instead of asking the initial disempowering question, he could as well ask empowering questions like: “Is there anything I can do to help you meet your targets?” Or “Are there areas you think you need to improve upon in order to meet your targets?” Or “What challenges are you facing that are making you not to meet your target?” Managers should be at the forefront of helping their people resolve their performance challenges. Whenever a CEO, leader or manager ask those kinds of empowering questions, it opens the gateway that will lead to identifying the employees’ paths to success through your questions.
Leaders and managers have a key role to play in creating a corporate culture of questioning. They are to create a questioning business environment where staff members will feel safe and able to trust the system and the people involved. By so doing, they will build a culture in which questions are welcomed, assumptions are challenged, and new ways to solve problems are explored. As a matter of fact, questions establish an inquiring culture in organizations, and such an inquiry and culture will build a learning organization – and a learning organization is a thriving organization.
Organizations should develop a culture where asking the right questions is permissible, safe and desired. The old erroneous belief that leadership is all about knowing all the answers should no more apply in today’s business world. Leadership in any facet should be viewed as knowing the right questions to ask, and carefully listening to those answers. Every organization possesses an array of knowledge, wisdom, creativity, and energy, and the surest way to harness those assets is to encourage questioning as part of the organization’s culture.
Remember, the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell the answer, but the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask the right question.
Do you desire to learn what it takes to build the right culture of questioning in your organization?
If yes, let me know.
As always, I welcome your comments, requests and questions.
Happy reading and I look forward to hearing from you!