By Anja van den Berg
A big part of executives’ output depends on feedback from others. Requesting status updates or questioning a counterpart in negotiations are but two such examples. Yet, few executives have developed the skill of asking the questions that matter – in a way that matters.
Unlike professionals like litigagants, journalists and doctors, who are taught how to ask questions as an essential part of their training, few executives think of questioning as a skill that can be honed, says professors Alison Woods Brooks and Leslie K John from Harvard Business School.
In an article on Harvard Business Review, the research duo says that asking questions is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organisations. It spurs learning and exchanging ideas, fuels innovation and performance improvement, and builds rapport and trust among team members.
Asking the right questions can even mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards. Asking a lot of questions also unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.
Why, then, does it seem like leaders usually stick to the tried-and-trusted questions or not asking questions at all?
Brooks and John say that there are many reasons. People may be egocentric and eager to impress with their own stories. They may be apathetic and don’t care enough to ask – or they anticipate being bored by the answer. They may be overconfident in their knowledge, or perhaps they worry that they’ll ask the wrong question and be viewed as rude or incompetent.
Research indicates that people have conversations to accomplish two main goals: information exchange (learning) and impression management (liking). Recent research shows that asking questions achieves both.
One study that used speed daters as subjects showed that people were more willing to go on a second date with partners who asked more questions.
Questions are such powerful tools that they can be beneficial – perhaps particularly so – in circumstances when question asking goes against social norms.
For instance, the general custom says that job candidates are expected to answer questions during interviews. But research by Dan Cable, at the London Business School, and Virginia Kay, at the University of North Carolina, suggests that most people excessively self-promote during job interviews.
When interviewees focus on selling themselves, they are likely to forget to ask questions about the interviewer, the organisation, and the job. However, research shows that when candidates ask in-depth questions, the interviewer feels more engaged and more apt to view the candidate favourably.
For job candidates, asking questions such as “What am I not asking you that I should?” can signal competence, build rapport, and unlock key pieces of information about the position.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-surprising-power-of-questions