The Most Important Question
“What is the most important question a leader can ask?”
I get this question often from my clients, and I always tell them that they basically just asked it!
Put more generally, the best question a leader can ask is also the simplest: “What do you think?”
This question is basically an invitation to contribute. It signals to your coworkers that you value their input and want them to be involved in the decision-making process. Leaders that ask this question on a regular basis build higher levels of psychological safety in their teams, and increase trust and rapport in their relationships at work. This question may also surface potential conflicts. When leaders encourage honest commentary, they will quickly realize that not everyone on their team has the same opinion. Leaders can utilize disagreement to achieve alignment and higher levels of innovation.
The cost of not asking others what they think is higher than you might think!
Sadly, many leaders are afraid to ask others what they are thinking. They are afraid of disagreement, and are not prepared to leverage conflict into learning and growth. Or, perhaps, they are afraid that asking this question will make them look clueless. Some leaders still believe they have to have all the answers, and that asking what others think makes them an ineffective leader. So, they think it’s safer not to ask.
But the whole point of asking others what they think is to get an answer that’s different from what we think! Isn’t it funny that we tend to view conflict and disagreement as problems rather than solutions? What if we could view every difference of opinion as an opportunity to refine, improve, and grow?
When you do ask the question, consider your motives. Are you asking people what they think because you want them to agree with you? If so, you’re not asking a question–you’re seeking validation. Or, even worse, you’re “testing” your coworkers’ loyalty.
Great leaders ask this question with the full intention of listening to and understanding another perspective. They may or may not agree with what they hear. They may or may not incorporate that feedback into their work. But they always ask the question in good faith and take the response seriously.
As a leader, you should never avoid the potential conflict that accompanies disagreement. Lean into the conflict with the intention of gaining understanding. Be open and respectful, remembering that unanimous agreement is not always possible, or even desirable–you can always agree to disagree. Great leaders facilitate this process, knowing that the process is as important as the outcome, if not more so.
I’m curious: what do you think is the most important question leaders are (or could be) asking? How could you rethink the way you solicit and respond to feedback? If you are interested in elevating your leadership by cultivating openness and curiosity, send me an email at email@example.com.