Asking Unusual Questions Is a Gift to Your People and Yourself

We’ve all had leaders who were curious in the “odd” sense.

One of mine was COO Mort Zalk. He was renowned for sitting next to new employees on the corporate jet and asking them to justify their salaries throughout the flight. Pity those traveling across the country with him!

The ROI of Curiosity

Research in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) shows five benefits to curiosity:

  1. Fewer errors in decision-making—“we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions.”
  2. “More innovation and positive changes in creative and non-creative jobs”
  3. Less conflict in and between groups
  4. Communication is more open, and teams perform better
  5. Employees have more respect for their leaders and create more trusting and collaborative relationships with coworkers

Why We Don’t Encourage Questions

Here’s the rub. While most leaders say they’re all for curiosity, most actually stifle it. A survey of 3,000 employees mentioned in HBR indicated only 24% said they were regularly curious at work, while 70% believed they faced barriers when asking more questions there.

That’s because leaders are afraid of three things.

First is lower productivity. Maybe they’re thinking about all of the time they spent answering their two-year-old child’s “why” questions—and everybody has deadlines they need to meet!

Second is higher risks. Any kind of change can bring new problems Plus “there are good reasons why we do things this way.”

Third is a challenge to their leadership. If they encourage employees to ask more questions, these people will likely come up with some the leader can’t answer. And that can make a leader feel and look stupid.

As a neuroscience nerd, I know our brains have a negative bent. We always look first at the downside of doing something—and want to run away from that—rather than focus on the good things that could happen. This means we need to make a choice to encourage curiosity.

Start by Asking Better Questions

It always helps to model the behavior you want others to use, so they know how it looks. This means you begin asking questions.

In this case, use ones that show you’re curious about who someone is or what he/she/they are doing. (Not to be confused with a college biology professor I had, who deliberately asked questions of girls she believed didn’t know the answer so she could publicly humiliate them.)


Stop Asking Yes or No Questions:

Do you like how the project is going?

Instead, Dig Deeper:

How do you think the project is going?


Stop Asking Questions that Are Too General:

How’s everything going?

Instead, Ask for Insights:

What does your team think is the biggest opportunity here?


Stop Asking Leading Questions (Implies You Want Them to Agree):

Everything is going fine, then?

Instead, Show Your Interest:

Can you explain how this works?


Stop Using a Statement that Assumes You Understand (and Is Dismissive):

I get it.

Instead, Paraphrase then Check for Understanding:

Does that sound right to you? 


Be There

 It’s not enough to ask good questions: you have to be interested in the answers, too. Here’s a quick article on active listening.

You know every time someone is dialing it in. And all your people can see it when you do, too. Showing you’re curious about what they’re doing, and their opinions, makes them more curious, too. It breaks down the silos in your organization and helps everyone make better decisions—and feel better about making them.

Make that one of the gifts of your leadership.