Business Columns & Blogs

Asking the right questions can be better than ‘knowing it all’

Nancy Napier: Creativity
Nancy Napier: Creativity

I’ll admit it, sometimes I get a bit smug. It happened when the Wall Street Journal (14 May 2019, R2) published an article aimed at senior business leaders on a topic I have harped on for years: the value of questions.

We include a section on asking good questions in our Executive MBA program. A chapter in a book I wrote several years ago, “Wise Beyond Your Field,” has a chapter on the many types and purposes of questions. So it was gratifying to see the topic covered in the Journal.

Asking the right questions can carry discussions, projects, and perhaps even careers further than “knowing it all.” Professor Hal Gregersen says, rightly so, that there is no “list of the right questions,” but that organizations and leaders can create conditions to foster the opportunity for better ones to emerge.

Here are some of his suggestions:

1. Realize that some types of questions open creativity. These include nonaggressive, open-ended ones that reframe a problem. A simple shift from “how many hours do you put on the job?” to “what results have you achieved?” changes the way we think about a problem.

2. Create the habit of question asking. Model it by asking others — and yourself — questions that dive into the guts of a problem, beyond the surface-level obvious questions.

3. Use silence. When someone comes with a problem, sit quietly for five seconds rather than jumping in with a solution. That could help the other person learn to find her own answers.

4. Reward those who question. Rather than being defensive when a person challenges you or others with questions, listen and try to use the question as a way to get to higher quality decisions.

Using questions — why not?

Nancy Napier is a Boise State University distinguished professor.