Research shows that in effective teams, members share their own views openly and ask others for their views too. By combining openness with a genuine desire to understand, teams keep discussions focussed, get all the relevant information, views and perspectives on the table which enables them to identify solutions and resolve problems. As a result teams have more effective working relationships and better performance. Team leaders can facilitate team working and discussions through the use of ‘powerful’ questions. The term ‘powerful’ is used deliberately as not all questions are created equal.

Consider the following questions:

  1. You don’t really thinks that solution will work do you?
  2. Why do you think I asked you to follow up with the supplier last week?
  3. If we implement this proposal, what problems, if any would it create in your team?

    Questions a) and b) are rhetorical, they don’t really ask for an answer but implicably state the team leaders own views or ask you to guess what they are thinking. Asking rhetorical questions demonstrates both a lack of transparency as well as a real desire to understand others perspectives.

    Rhetorical questions are a great way to score quick points – they can make you feel smart and superior. However, the consequence of asking rhetorical questions is that team members can feel defensive, discounted or even insulted, which ultimately undermines the team’s working relationships.

    Consider the following example:

    John was the head of a new product development team.

    During a team meeting John’s direct reports told him that a new product variant will not be available to launch on a particular date. He was very frustrated and responded, ‘Why do you think I asked you to have this variant available before the summer starts’?

    John may as well have added ‘you idiots’, on the end of it, because that’s how the team felt when questioned like that. But what would have happened if John had asked a different question when provided with this information, a powerful genuine question to help him learn more about the situation?

    For example, a question along the lines of, ‘That really worries me because it puts the forecast sales of this product at risk which might affect the profitability of the business this year. Help me to understand what happened to cause this variant to be delivered late?’

    By shifting the problem from a rhetorical question to a truly powerful one, John could have encouraged openness in discussions about what went wrong and agree the solution to it.

    Adding ‘you idiot(s)’ to the end of a question is an effective way of deciding for yourself whether to use a question or not – if the question still sounds  natural with it at the end, then don’t ask it!

    So as a leader if you want openness and effective working relationships in your team, check the questions you ask – it really is a question of leadership!