Answers or Questions

by Ron Potter
Photo credit: Karen Eliot, Creative Commons

Photo credit: Karen Eliot, Creative Commons


Do you provide answers or ask questions? Think about it a minute. When someone walks into your office, when you take that phone call, how about when you open the email or text, or even when you join the meeting, do you find yourself providing more answers or asking more questions?

Transition from Manager to Leader

All of my corporate work is conducted with leaders: CEO’s, presidents, vice presidents, and directors. Seldom am I working at the management or lower levels. And to me this question of providing answers, not asking questions is a clear indication of whether someone has successfully made that transition from manager to leader. Throughout your early career, you are rewarded and promoted for providing answers. But as your success carries you into the leadership rank of director and above, you should be shifting to a more questioning style that gets others to think, explore, and maybe even learn from your experience. Managers provide answers. Leaders use powerful questioning.

“Judge a man by his questions. Not by his answers” – Voltaire

Avoid losing your job to a computer

A couple of good books lately have made a very strong point of this. One is The Second Machine Age by Erik Bryn Jolfsson and Andrew McAfee and the second one is A More Beautiful Questions by Warren Berger. Erik and Andrew in their book note that this ability to think of good questions, not just come up with the right answer, is what distinguishes us from the most powerful computers. This is still the unique human element. Even with as many jobs as the computer has already taken over, their use in the workplace is about to accelerate even more. Your ability to avoid losing your job to a computer that is good at coming up with answers will only be avoided by honing your creativity and coming up with great questions.

And even if you’re in that stage of your career when you’re being paid to provide answers and complete tasks, hone your skills of asking “why.” You’ll begin to stand out from the crowd and may reach the leadership ranks sooner than you think.

Cut your email by 40%

Here’s a simple but powerful example of questions vs. answers. Almost every leader will complain to me that they are overwhelmed with email. I’ll ask them if they would like to instantly cut their email volume by 40%. Although they’re always skeptical, they agree they would like to experience that kind of reduction.

I tell them to stop providing answers. Leaders tend to be good at problem solving. That’s what got them here. So the natural instinct when an email comes in is to give the answer or solve the problem. Stop doing that! Leaders are supposed to encourage and grow others to solve the problem. I guarantee that you will substantially reduce your email volume if you respond to the email with one simple question: “Why are you sending me this email?”

That simple question will lead to some great discussions about accountability and problem solving, as well as with teamwork and collaboration.

Managers provide answers. Leaders use powerful questioning.

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1 comment

Daniel Heffernan September 8, 2016 - 5:51 pm

Ron – that question just sounds a bit snarky! Any alternatives that would accomplish the same thing?


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