The Surprising Power of Questions

Did you know that asking questions is a skill that can be honed?

Have you ever thought about the benefits of using questions skillfully at work?

What do you think might be the top five reasons to improve your ability to ask – and answer – questions in the workplace?

Sorry to pepper you with so many questions, but what better way to launch into a post about “The Surprising Power of Questions”? (Oops, I did it again!)

An excellent “Managing Yourself” feature in the 2018 May/June issue of the Harvard Business Review by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John provides the answers to these and other thought-provoking questions.

First, the benefits to skillfully asking (and answering) questions at work:

  • Unlocking hidden value
  • Spurring learning and the exchange of information
  • Fueling innovation and better performance
  • Building trust among team members
  • Mitigating risk by uncovering unseen pitfalls and hazards

So, the benefits are abundant. How do we go about enhancing the power and efficacy of inquiries?  Authors Brooks and John, both professors at Harvard Business School, provide in-depth answers to this question, including a handy chart for both competitive and cooperative conversations. They include common challenges and tactics for handling questions in both types of exchanges.

For example, what to do when a conversational partner is reluctant to share information or may be tempted to lie? They advise:

  • Ask direct “yes or no” questions to avoid evasive answers.
  • Ask detailed follow-up questions to pry out more information.
  • Frame tough questions using pessimistic assumptions to reduce the likelihood that the respondents will lie.
  • Ask the most sensitive question first. Subsequent questions will feel less intrusive, making your partner more forthcoming.

What about when you’re the one in the hot seat? Here are some tactics that everyone could benefit from remembering:

  • Avoid droning on and on. Use energy, humor and storytelling to engage others.
  • Avoid talking too much about yourself and remember to ask questions of others.
  • Deflect tough questions by answering with another question or a joke (if appropriate).

“A conversation is a dance that requires partners to be in sync—it’s a mutual push-and-pull that unfolds over time. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information—so, too, can the way we answer them,” they note.

Deciding what to share and what to keep private is another important aspect of answering questions in the office (or anywhere else for that matter). I was interested to learn that people “too often err on the side of privacy—and under appreciate the benefits of transparency. Sharing information helps to build trust and keeping secrets depletes us cognitively, interferes with our ability to concentrate and remember things, and even harms our long-term health and well-being,” according to the authors.

All the above reminds me of a great question at our last all company meeting.  One of our senior consultants asked a solid question that I, later, realized many others were thinking.  I gave my best answer at the time which turns out was wrong.  Albert Einstein apparently once said, “Question Everything.” I might add: “Answer questions as completely and honestly as you possibly can.”

The above said, if we’ve answered questions completely and honestly and are wrong, the next steps are to own it, state incorrect assumptions, and share an updated best answer.

Make Meetings Work

If you’ve read my book, “The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership”  you know I’ve devoted a fair amount of thought and study to the subject of effective meetings. While many people hate meetings, I’ve found that efficiently run meetings are productive and even fun. Just when I thought I had the perfect formula for meeting magic, I ran across a great business leadership book called “Traction,” by Gino Wickman, which expanded my thinking and meeting practices in a number of positive ways.

Traction provided some great ideas for making our meetings better than ever. For example, not only do we find time to connect as people and colleagues (without the meeting veering off into a 20-minute account of someone’s new car or perfect golf game), we definitely focus on the issues that matter most. Wickman calls this a “meeting pulse,” which gets taken with the help of his “Level 10 Meeting Agenda.” He says, “The Level 10 Meeting Agenda is a tool that will help you get to the core of what makes for great meetings, namely conflict and resolution.”

Here are some takeaways that might help kick start your meetings too (see my sample agenda at the end and feel free to adapt it for your own organization):

  • Start with sharing personal items during the “Segue” portion of the meeting, which helps to build personal connections.  This is where I ask everyone to share something personal to build personal bonds (like, my kid is having challenges in school, and I’m doing A/B/C to help). The agenda has suggested time allotments for each section. This helps everyone to remember to share meaningful information concisely.
  • In the part of the meeting where people share customer/employee highlights the idea is to get the meeting off on a positive note. I don’t want to ignore problems or issues, which we tackle in the “workout” section, but remembering the positive employee and customer experiences is especially important since our leadership team only meets once per month.
  • Covering the Scorecard (see my previous post for more on Scorecards) and goals/rocks right away without discussion is by design because this section of the meeting just sets the stage for the in-depth discussion to follow.
  • The bulk of the L10 meeting is to discuss ideas/issues.  As things come up from one month to the next, I’ll email our office manager, who keeps the agenda, to make sure these items are added to the agenda. This process makes it simple to create the agenda (anyone on the leadership team can add items knowing they’ll be covered at the next meeting).

Intertech Meeting Agenda:

  1. Segue (11:00, 5 Minutes). Each meeting answer one of the following:  What’s one good personal and professional thing since the last workout?  What’s working at Intertech?  What is one highlight from the weekend?  What’s the biggest win in the last seven days.
  2. Scorecard (11:05, 5 Minutes). Review of financial and operating metrics.  Update, not discussion.
  3. Rock Review (11:10, 5 Minutes). Review top goals.  Update, not discussion.
  4. Customer/Employee Headlines (11:15, 5 Minutes). Share positive wins since last meeting.
  5. Workout (11:20, 90 Minutes). This is the core of the meeting.  It is going over upcoming plans for
  6. strategic goals and important issues that surfaced in end-of-day huddles.  Review/update quarterly goals (All).  Review/update Work Plan items (All).  Define 90-day work plan for ’18 goals
  7. Conclude (12:50, 10 Minutes).  Recap To-Do List. What shook out today that needs to be tackled by whom?  Cascading messages. What messages need to be communicated company-wide?  Next meeting: When’s the next meeting?  Rate meeting 1-10 (Should be 8+). Less than 8 merits discussion so we can improve.
  8. Next Meeting Date

Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!

Did you like the movie “Rudy”?  The coach gets the team psyched by acknowledging challenges and sharing the plan to overcome them.  In business, this works too.  In fact, professors at Texas A&M studied motivational language theory (MLT).

In a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article they share “most winning formulas include three elements: direction giving, expressions of empathy, and meaning making.”

Here’s a succinct summary of the three elements:  Direction giving – People want to know what’s expected of them.  Empathetic language  You’re talking with a human… act like it.  Meaning-making language – Answer why this is important.

 

5 tips for more-effective business communication

Did The fate of the planet may not hang in the balance based on how well you communicate with employees and colleagues, but harmonious communication definitely will make work — and life — much more productive and pleasant.you catch the Sci-Fi flick, Arrival, with Amy Adams?  (If not, I promise not to spoil the ending.)

The movie, based on a short story, dramatically illustrates the importance of communication. In fact, just getting one word wrong can lead to dire consequences when you’re communicating with aliens.

Arrival is weird and fascinating, yet aside from the freaky appearance of the aliens, the story line is not all that different from many other stories: beings trying to understand each other and the dramatic consequences that follow when communication breaks down.

I’m not a linguist, but I have spent many years working with others to build a successful business. Effective communication is key to everything we do and accomplish together. Here’s a short list of what I’ve learned along the way.

Read the 5 tips for more-effective business communication on The Business Journal website.

Increasing Productivity and Profits with Employee Engagement

What if you could increase productivity, decrease absenteeism, and outperform your competitive set by over 2X?  Not only is it possible, it’s proven!  In this session that I delivered at the Entrepreneur Organization’s Thrive event, I share practical, actionable ways to increase employee engagement from building trust with co-workers to helping employees feel valued and understand how they fit in the big picture.