Does your team have a difficult time making decisions that everyone supports? If so, you may be suffering from a lack of curiosity.
Try this: Next time you’re in a team meeting, count the number of times you make a statement and the number of times you ask a question. If you’re like most team leaders, you’ll find that you make many more statements than ask questions and some of the questions you ask aren’t really questions.
Research shows that in effective teams, members share their own views and ask others their views. By combining transparency and curiosity, teams keep the discussion focused, get all the information on the table, learn why members have different views, and create solutions that take into account all team members’ perspectives. As a result these teams have stronger performance and better working relationships.
When leaders learn that they aren’t asking question, they often overcompensate by asking a lot of questions and withholding their own views. This leaves team members feeling interrogated rather than engaged.
Not all questions are created equal. To develop an effective team, it’s not enough to ask questions. You have to be genuinely curious. When you are genuinely curious, you ask questions to learn what others are thinking. When you aren’t genuinely curious, you ask questions to make a point: rhetorical questions.
See if you can tell which of the following questions are genuine and which are rhetorical:
- “You don’t really think your solution will work, do you?”
- “If we implemented my proposal, what problems, if any, would it create in your divisions?”
- “Why do you think I asked you to follow up yesterday?”
Questions 1 and 3 are rhetorical: they don’t really ask for an answer but implicitly state the speaker’s own views or ask you to guess what the speaker is thinking. Asking rhetorical questions demonstrates a lack of both curiosity and transparency.
Rhetorical questions can feel good to ask. They are a way to score some quick — and often clever — verbal points. But rhetorical questions undermine your team’s working relationships and reduce its ability to make high-quality decisions. Rhetorical questions enable you to ask others to be accountable without being transparent about your own views, leading team members to feel insulted, defensive, or discounted. As a result, team members trust you less, withdraw from the discussion, and withhold relevant information that the team needs to make good decisions.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine whether what you are about to ask is a genuine question (like question 2 above.) If you answer yes to any of the following questions, the question you’re about to ask isn’t genuine.
- Do I already know the answer to my question?
- Am I asking the question to see if people will give the right (preferred) answer?
- Am I asking the question to make a point?
Another way to figure out if you’re about to ask a rhetorical question is to give yourself what I call the “You Idiot” test. Here’s how it works:
Privately say to yourself the question you plan to ask. For example, during your team meeting your direct reports have just told you that they will miss the final deadline and incur additional costs on a key project, the very outcomes you were trying hard to avoid. Feeling frustrated, you’re tempted to respond, “Why do you think I asked you to finish the work before the end of this fiscal year?”
At the end of your private question, add the words “you idiot.” Now you’re saying to yourself, “Why do you think I asked you to finish the work before the end of this fiscal year, you idiots?”
If the question still sounds natural with “you idiots” at its end, don’t ask it. It’s really a statement — a pointed rhetorical question.
Change the question to a transparent statement that shares your view, including your reasoning and your feelings. Then add a genuine question that helps you learn more about the situation. In this case you might say, “That really bothers me because it already puts next year’s budget at risk. Help me understand; what happened to make project expenses spill over into next fiscal year?”
Shifting from rhetorical to genuine questions may be more difficult than it seems. That’s because the questions you ask and the statements you make are driven by your mindset: the set of core values and assumptions that unconsciously guide your behavior.
If you’re operating from a unilateral control mindset, rhetorical questions enable you to control your team, by telling them (implicitly) what you think and not allowing them to influence you.
If you’re operating from a mutual learning mindset, you are both curious and transparent. You are curious: you see each team member as having a different piece of the puzzle you all need to solve, so you ask genuine questions to elicit information and ideas. You are transparent: you express your point of view, clearly and explicitly — not disguised in a rhetorical question. By being transparent about your own concerns and curious about your team members’ experiences and perspectives, you improve working relationships, develop more creative solutions, and achieve more accountability and commitment to decisions from all team members.
So check your questions: are you asking rhetorical ones?
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