The Questions that Leaders Ask
There are generally 4 kinds of questions that leaders address to their subordinates, with varying degrees of intent. Deciphering what kind of question you’re being asked is obviously a key part of providing the right kind of answer, but also an indispensable tool in identifying the kind of leader you’re working for.
The most common kind of question is also the default assumption by my subordinates: the leader needs to know some key piece of information currently held by the subordinate. It could be a quarterly sales report, or the location of a shipment. It could be a status update or preparation for an upcoming meeting. Regardless, the subordinate has knowledge that the leader needs, and the leader is seeking it.
There are times when leaders are querying their subordinates not in search of information, but in search of the warm fuzzy that the subordinates are clear on the knowledge they’re expected to have.
On one hand, you can think of this as the “pop quiz” that teachers give to make sure their students were paying attention. You want to know that when you pass on information, it’s properly received and understood.
On another hand, there are times when you’re just trying to confirm that the subordinates know the things they should know. An example in a military context is confirming that the leaders have accountability of their people, such as who is reporting for medical treatment vs who is reporting for off-site training vs who is in the motor pool.
These types of confirmation are not unusual, but can sometimes be manipulated into micromanaging the subordinates. The intent of the query needs to be clear: are you checking for comprehension, or are you ‘pushing’ your preferred solution onto a subordinate thru a question?
Leader can — and should! — seek input and ideas from their subordinates. When developing new plans, processes, or routines, subordinate input is vital, especially since they’re the ones most likely to be at the execution-level of operation. Moreover, there are times when the subordinates will have areas of special expertise that need to be leveraged to formulate a quality plan, or are able to bring more creative ideas to the table in a blue-sky brainstorming environment.
In any case, leaders asking for input from their subordinates is an entirely normal, appropriate, and encouraging thing.
Seeking to Show Off
Let’s face it, there are some leaders who are hell-bent on dominating the room, and lording their superior knowledge over there subordinates. They’re asking questions they know no one else can answer, and they know will have to circle back around to themselves for the response. These arrogant twats are insecure, self-serving, and unworthy of your followership. But you can work with them, as they are clearly need in of an ego stroke. Acknowledge their superior intellect and then get back to work.
I thought that had run the gamut of leader questioning until recently. Faced with a reboot of a particular series of recurring presentations, the pair of us responsible for them teamed up with a variety of suggestions to get us out of the rut we were in with these company-wide meetings. Over the course of six weeks, we threw out over 3 dozen different ideas, almost all to no avail. The boss (actually, the grandboss — our boss’s boss) wasn’t budging. Worse, the feedback was forever cyptic: “think bigger” or “what’s the theme you’re selling?” (note: there’s no theme to these). We finally came to the conclusion that this was a lost cause, because the grandboss already knew in his mind what he wanted, and was wanting to see how long it would take for us to scan his brainwaves and thus arrive at the same Conclusion of Brilliance™ where he’d landed. He was…
Seeking Others to Arrive at the One-Person Consensus
He already knew what he wanted, but he wasn’t going to just tell us so we could get on with it. Whether it was a demented form of hazing, or corporate-hierarchy cruelty, or just an idiot in charge was completely irrelevant. It was a waste of 6 weeks of work that could’ve been entirely short-circuited with directed guidance from a boss (note: not a leader and barely a manager) who somehow felt the need to pretend he was #3 above, and turned out to be #4, but without bothering to provide the answers.
You can probably guess how toxic this behavior is to your subordinates.
So to sum up: leaders are going to ask a variety of questions. They should! That’s a key component of meaningful communication. Leaders should be soliciting information from their charges. They need to confirm understanding. They damn well better get input from below. But beware the questions that come with alternate agendas, especially when the ‘question’ is little more than a setup for the leader to show off in a vainglorious attempt at self-burnishing. In that case? Run.
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