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When was the last time you had an game-changing "ah-ha"? Or even an epiphany?

Those amazing moments often start at the same place: A question. Good leaders have good ideas. But great leaders ask the questions that produce invaluable thinking in others.

Helping others find their own insights

Discovering your own insights is an empowering experience. When you think things through to find answers, it increases your confidence, energizes you as you “see” solutions, and allows you to establish a track record of solving problems and overcoming challenges.

We know through neuroscience research that not only is having an insight incredibly invigorating, but we are much more committed to taking action when we see a solution tied to our ideas.

As leaders, too often we rely on telling rather than asking. In our eagerness to solve a problem or get something done, we jump straight to saying what we think others need to hear. The only problem is, it’s our thinking and our ideas. And maybe none of theirs.

The best leaders understand this. They don’t give their team all the answers. Instead, they lead by questioning and teach their team how to come up with viable, actionable solutions on their own as much as possible. This is the essence of the coaching style of leadership and a far more rewarding way to lead, both for yourself and others.

Why lead-by-questioning works

Think about a time when a team member hit a roadblock. Your first instinct is to suggest a solution, which is not a bad thing, and, on the surface, seems the most efficient thing to do. But by handing them the solutions, you:

  • Cheat them out of a learning and development opportunity;
  • Miss out on fresh thinking they could bring to the table; and
  • Create added stress and pressure on yourself by trying to be the problem-solver. (NOTE: Some leaders like being the hero, but that’s often not the best use of your time and abilities.)

Instead, by asking the right questions, you can help this team member find a good solution herself. At the same time, she will have the chance to learn from it, she may offer an entirely different idea that works better, and she may also leave your office skipping down the hall.

Not only will she benefit, but you will, too.

  • You build your team into better critical and strategic thinkers and more capable problem-solvers.
  • You free up your time to focus on bigger issues rather than solving problems for others.
  • As your team performs at a higher level, you become a “multiplying leader” – someone who gets exponentially more done by working with and through others rather than relying on your own strengths.
  • People want to work for you because you are an empowering leader, not a controlling one.
  • You foster loyalty because people appreciate that you let them figure things out for themselves.

Asking the right questions

So how can you implement a lead-by-questioning style? First, you avoid the wrong questions —questions that can be answered with one word (yes or no), that focus on the problem, or that tend to make others defensive.

Would anyone on your team respond positively to questions like this:

  • Why are you behind schedule?
  • What’s the problem with this project?
  • Who isn’t keeping up?
  • Don’t you know any better than that?
  • Wouldn’t you agree … ?
  • How could this have happened?

The best questions empower others by:

  • Getting them to think more deeply about an issue
  • Inspiring them to come up with unique ideas
  • Enabling them to create new connections in their head they couldn’t make before
  • Encouraging them to see potential in any situation
  • Promoting a growth mindset — “we can figure this out” – rather than a fixed mindset – “we’ve done all we can”
  • Helping them focus on the solution, not the problem
  • Encouraging them to trust their own instincts

Some examples of empowering questions include:

  • What options are coming to your mind?
  • What does success look like?
  • How will a solution make our client/customer feel?
  • What gaps do you see in your thinking?
  • What’s your gut instinct here?
  • What will it take to get there?
  • What is a good next step?
  • How do you feel about the resources you have in place?
  • How can I help you from here?
  • What would you do if you could do anything?
  • Do you see any new possibilities?

Establishing a lead-by-questioning culture

The more you ask great questions, the more you will foster a culture that values this approach and that others will emulate. Get things rolling by asking your team learning-focused questions during team meetings. For example, after a project has wrapped up, try asking:

  • What was particularly effective about this team?
  • What could be “even better if”?
  • What did we learn from a disappointment? How can we apply that in the future?
  • How could we improve upon our workflow?

Encourage your team to try lead-by-questioning in their circle of influence, too. Share the list of empowering questions above with them. In your one-on-ones, ask them about the types of questions they are asking and how that is changing the results they are getting.

Helping your people think for themselves ultimately helps everyone perform better. They grow and flourish in their roles, and you gain more time and space to focus on big-picture issues. You become an empowering leader whose success is exponential and whose influence is scalable.

Remember – you don’t have to have the answer when you ask the question. Neither do they! But by getting others thinking, good answers will come.

Two great resources on this topic:

What questions have you used that work well? I’d love to hear your ideas and look forward to hearing from you — elise@elisemitchell.com.

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