5 common questions leaders should never ask

Asking the right questions can help business leaders to anticipate changes, seize opportunities and move their firms in new directions. SPONSORED CONTENT

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September 13, 2014 |
Steven Burns

Photo: bplanet via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Asking the right questions can help business leaders to anticipate changes, seize opportunities and move their firms in new directions.

But how you question is key, writes author Warren Berger in a Harvard Business Review blog post. He cites five examples of common questions leaders may ask that can have the unintended effect of leading people in the wrong direction. 

1. “What’s the problem?”
If a leader asks questions that are focused on problems and weaknesses, then the organization overall will tend to be fixated on that — rather than focusing on strengths and opportunities. It’s better to use positive questions geared to leveraging strengths and achieving goals: What are we doing well and how might we build upon that? What is the ideal outcome and how do we get closer to that?

2. “Whose fault is it?”
This question focuses attention on finding a scapegoat when in reality, there is usually plenty of blame to go around for any failure or problem. A better approach would be to ask, How can we work together to shore up any weaknesses? That identifies weak links and areas in need of improvement without focusing too much on blame.

3. “Why don’t you do it this way?”
This question may seem like a mere suggestion, but when asked by a leader, it’s truly a leading question — a way of imposing your ways on others. Better to allow people to figure out their own ideas and approaches, though you can sometimes help them along by asking, How were you thinking of doing it? What do you have in mind?

4. “Haven’t we tried this already?”
This question seems to suggest that everything has been thought of already, and that because something was tried once and didn’t work, it should never be considered again. It fails to recognize that some ideas may have come up short in the past because of bad timing or poor execution, not because the idea itself was wrong. Better to ask, If we tried this now, what would be different this time — and how might that change the results?

5. “What’s our iPad?"
Some version of this question tends to be asked when a panicked boss reacts to a competitor introducing a hot new product or service. The problem is, it encourages people to be followers—to think that their job is to imitate what the other guy is doing, as quickly as possible. It’s better to ask questions like: Why is our competitor having success with this product? What need is it satisfying? How might we use our particular strengths to do an even better job of meeting customers’ needs?

Read more from the Harvard Business Review blog.

Steven Burns | The Business Behind Design

Steven Burns, FAIA spent 14 years managing the firm Burns + Beyerl Architects, and during that time the firm’s earnings grew at an average rate of 24% per year. After founding his own software company, Steve took his management expertise to BQE Software, where he is refining their business strategy and product development for the company’s groundbreaking project accounting solution, BQE Core.

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