Using Humble Inquiry to Lead

You probably ask multiple questions during the work day.  Do you realize that the style of your questions is an indicator of your leadership style?  Every question you ask not only generates an answer it also makes an impression on the team you lead and they react accordingly.

Humble inquiry, asking simple questions in a non-threatening way to gain understanding, is the key to effective leadership.  As you learn about a situation, your humble questions lead the team to discover more about the situation as well.  Let’s look at different types of questions and their role in leadership.

Do you set yourself up as an expert?  Most leaders do.  After all, we are promoted to authority by demonstrating our competence.  The team comes to us for guidance because we know the answers and are accustomed to making decisions.  If you spend the majority of your day directing employees and solving problems for them, you are probably in the expert role.

Experts ask leading questions.  Questions like “Did you follow up on that?” or “We’ve ordered enough of that product, right?” have an implied plan of action.  There’s even a critical connotation associated with this type of directive questioning.  Rather than share the entire situation with you, your team normally reacts by taking the action you’ve implied or becoming defensive.  Here are examples of expert style inquiry.  Notice how each question makes a judgment or directs a course of action?

  • Why don’t you …?
  • Last time we ….why didn’t you try that?
  • How did this happen?  Did everyone follow the process?
  • Did you consider….before doing ….?
  • Who have we notified about this?

What’s the result?  Your team is not empowered to think for themselves.  Their creative ability is suppressed and they follow your direction and become dependent on it.  The success of your organization is therefore limited, in large part, to your ability to achieve and direct.

There’s a better way.

Maybe you’re often in the role of a doctor.  When a problem is brought to your attention do you ask diagnostic questions such as “what lead to this issue?” or “what is the effect of this on our ability to meet the delivery schedule?”  These are good questions, designed to help you understand the situation and take appropriate action.

This type of humble inquiry is more productive, encouraging employees to articulate problems in depth and give you the information you need to give direction.  Here are some examples of diagnostic inquiry.  Notice the emphasis is on understanding the problem.

  • What happened?
  • Has this happened before?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • How have you tried to change this situation?
  • Who is most affected by this situation?
  • When did you first notice this problem?



The hidden problem with a doctor role lies in empowerment.  As the “doctor” you are still functioning as an expert.  The team is relying on your knowledge and expertise to determine their next course of action.  While this is often appropriate, it still limits the creative problem solving ability of your team and keeps them dependent on you instead of becoming self-reliant.

There’s another danger in asking diagnostic questions.  Questions like these naturally follow a path toward a supposed issue.  For example, if you suspect machine failure is the cause of a problem, your questions will center on the maintenance and capabilities of the machine in question.  A diagnosis is implied in the line of questioning.  Be careful to approach questions with an open mind and avoid making assumptions too quickly.

The most effective leaders move beyond the role of a doctor and into the role of a coach.  Think about successful coaches.  They inspire the team to personal and collaborative excellence.  Isn’t this what you want for your organization?  The coaching model of leadership empowers colleagues and subordinates to assume problem solving responsibility and develop professionally through experience.

When used correctly, simple questions lead your team to analyze a situation for themselves and propose creative action through their own understanding.  When you ask a subordinate “what do you think?” you open the door for thoughtful analysis.  Questions like these build employee confidence and expertise.

Wondering how to transition to a coaching leadership style?  Start by listening to the questions you normally ask and thinking about how to move those questions to a more coaching style.  Here are some examples of humble inquiry that coaches…

  • Why did this happen?
  • How would you correct this?
  • What do you recommend?
  • How do you know?
  • Who could help with this?
  • Where can we source this?

Certainly there are times when a situation demands immediate direction.  There’s nothing wrong with taking an expert role occasionally when business conditions demand it.  Wherever possible, though, try asking simple, humble questions before making decisions.  Your team will develop professionally and partner with you.  You’ll unleash their creative problem solving ability and lead them to new levels of excellence.


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