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I’ve been dipping back into David Cooperrider’s work on Appreciative Inquiry lately for many of my clients. In a nutshell his work focuses on developing great questions that lead to rich dialogues that lead to surprising places. His work has been used for social change movements and organizational health. But I’ve been discussing it with my clients as it relates to ongoing conversations with staff for: growth and learning, performance management, problem solving, innovation, team collaboration.

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, asking questions more and talking less is an underutilized leadership skill. Because we have the role and status we believe we should have the answers and facts and ideas on the tips of our tongues at all times. I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent advising leaders that this simply is a myth. But strongly held beliefs about the role, egos, insecurities, etc. cause most leaders to speak in declarative remarks rather than open ended questions.

Cooperrider really digs into selecting great questions to deepen a discussion. For my purposes here I’ll stick with just the simplest guidelines.

  • “What do you think?” A leader is bombarded with questions all day long. Just imagine what would happen if each inquiry was tossed back. You would find out what others think. You would get fresh thinking. You would get greater involvement from staff. You would uncover the “yes, sir/ma’am” people. You would build the confidence of those around you. You would discover some stars and some stinkers.
  • “How do you think you are doing?” During ongoing supervision or performance reviews get the employee’s self assessment. Part of it will be bullshit to impress you (or cover up some deficit) and part of it will be too harsh. But if you keep asking questions…”what makes you think you fell short”, “what evidence do you have that it was so successful?”, “what do you think you need to do differently?”…you’d be surprised by where the conversation can lead. In most cases the employee will have said most of what is on your mind AND taken responsibility for the behaviors (good and bad). In other cases, the gap between the self appraisal and yours starts a very interesting (sic. difficult) dialogue that can lead to surprising places.
  • “What does the team think?” Even if you are talking one on one with someone, turning the conversation towards the collaboration shifts things. An individual has come to you privately to discuss something. Eight times out of 10 s/he wants to complain about the team/others who aren’t pulling their weight/seeing things properly. This person is looking to you to bless them as the true and rightful leader of the team. Don’t bite! If the response is “the team just isn’t aligned” the next question is “how do you plan to help get everyone on the same page?” At every turn, ask a question that keeps the focus on the team and this person’s accountability to them.
  • “What nags at you? What drive is an unmet need?” You want to unleash the passion and great ideas of your staff…and they want to be let out to play. But there are so few opportunities to truly try out some new ideas. By tapping into the energy that lives just below the surface in your organization some amazing things can happen. They care about many things and have loads of good ideas. But no one has asked them. So go ahead.

These are just for starters. My point is ask more and stay curious. Even at moments when you are the one who ought to answer the question. See what happens when you bounce it back. Questions have a way of opening new thought paths, shining light on new information, pulling others into the conversation.

And seriously, I can count on one hand the number of people who hate talking about themselves or what is on their mind.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for the shout out

    June 15, 2013

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