Winners answer their own questions.
WATOQ, as it’s known, is one of the sacred management tenets at Scroll, an ambitious service firm that wants to disrupt the book business. Employees are instructed to file a “trouble ticket” if they can’t find answers to their procedural questions on the company wiki. But there’s also danger in doing so, as managers warn new recruits: they risk being branded as poor problem-solvers.
If that sounds less than enlightened, take comfort in this: Scroll is a fictional company—more or less. The new novel in which it appears, A Window Opens (Simon & Schuster) was written by Elisabeth Egan, who draws on the 13 miserable months she spent as an editor in the books division of mighty Amazon.com.
It’s not hard to believe that the Seattle-based superpower suffers from the same ailment that afflicts many a service business: management’s inability to ask—or elicit—the right questions. Engaging questions can serve as powerful tools, whether by sparking collaboration, kindling creativity or igniting action.
But executives tend to weaponize their questions, turning them into blunt instruments: Don’t you know how to serve customers? Who is keeping this project from running on time? Such queries are aimed more at pinpointing blame than gathering information. Managers are often hunting for validation (Isn’t that right?) rather than seeking genuinely edifying responses.
Here, for the asking, are some of the ways smart leaders can ask—and use—questions:
Avoid focusing on what’s gone wrong. Rather than probing about who has, or hasn’t, been carrying his weight on a specific project, ask about next steps or what kind of resources might be needed. Forward-looking questions will energize employees. Communicating your support encourages creativity.
Try open-ended ‘why’ questions as often as possible. C-Suite executives often make the mistake of thinking they must always remind employees of their expertise and authority. But these types of questions—such as ‘Why do you assume that margins will drop so sharply?’ or ‘Why do you think we don’t have more repeat customers?’—encourage exploration, reflection and conversation. Asked respectfully, they will start a dialog that leads to greater understanding.
Be willing to learn from the answers you hear. Too often, executives ask unproductive questions—those to which they already know the answers. Such inquiries will ultimately lead employees to feel embarrassed and to try to hide their mistakes. By contrast, questions like ‘What can we do to fix this?’ or even ‘How can we learn from this?’ are more effective in tracing and solving problems.
Set an example with your own answers. An impatient questioner will get short, if not completely thoughtful, answers. Similarly, executives who are asked quality questions should not rush when it comes to offering their responses. That may mean taking a few moments to reflect—in awkward silence—before launching into a reply. The timing and pace of the response will communicate an important message about the kind of company you are building with your employees: driven by genuine curiosity and determined to make sure everybody has time to think.