Questions and Answers

Some years ago I recall making small-talk with my daughter while driving her to school. “What classes do you have today?” I asked.  “History, geography, maths, drama and French” she replied.  “What do you do in drama?” I enquired.  “We act” she replied sarcastically!

As the saying goes: Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a silly answer.

Questioning is possibly one of the most important skills of any manager or leader, but it is frequently a skill that is in short supply and, despite its importance, rarely a skill tested during interviews.

The skill of questioning can be considered in two parts; first there is the question itself and then there is the answer.  This may sound rather trite, but there is no shortage of examples where people have got the basics wrong.

For example, many years ago an organisation I worked for hired a new sales director.  He was convinced that the sales force was not having enough face-to-face meetings with customers and that this was holding us back.  He therefore instructed all the sales people to complete a form each week detailing every contact with a customer; whether it was in person, in writing or by telephone.

After several months of collecting and analysing all the data, the company discovered that sales had not increased at all.  Moreover, morale within the sales force was at an all-time low; as the sales people hated completing the form and resented the insinuation that they needed monitoring. 

The problem was that the sales director had asked an irrelevant question.  It turned out that the most successful sales person in the company actually had the lowest call rate.  However, the customer calls he did make were always to the important decision-makers within his customer’s organisations and each call was handled with consummate skill.  Had it been possible, what the sales director should have been measuring therefore was the quality of sales calls, not the quantity.

Asking the right questions is therefore a key management skill.  In his book “Why Great Leaders Don’t take Yes for an Answer”, Michael Roberto describes how the best leaders do not rush to conclusions, but step back from a situation and take time to thoroughly understand the nature of the problem.  In other words, they take time to understand the question and avoid the temptation to rush to find the answer.

In a similar vein, the actor and comedian Billy Connolly once said, “Avoid people who say they know the answer. Keep the company of people who are trying to understand the question”

However, understanding the question is only half the battle won – you then need to understand the answer.

During the Gulf War, officers serving in the British Army were sent a questionnaire asking them what they thought of the food in the Officers Mess.  The results were poor, so the MoD sought the help of some of Britain’s finest chefs to create new menus and to improve the standard of catering.  Six months later the same questionnaire was issued to officers serving in the Gulf and the results were even worse.

Staff at the MoD couldn’t understand what was going wrong – the food had always been good, and now it was even better.  The problem was that the soldiers were thousands of miles from home, separated from their loved ones for months on end, coping with sweltering heat and living each day in the knowledge that they could be killed at any moment – and the only question that anyone asked them was “what do you think of the food?”  Little wonder that they took the opportunity to vent their spleens.

This may seem like an extreme example, but I regularly see similar circumstances occur when organisations get the results of their annual employee opinion surveys.  

It is often the case that management take the results literally when in actual fact the response may reflect something quite different.  For example, I have often seen feedback that implies that the employees want to receive more communication on the company’s vision and direction.  In such cases, the management will often be confused, thinking that they have already provided a lot of information on their vision.  But they still commit to redouble their efforts. In reality, the issue is often not the quantity of communication, but the fact that the employees of the organisation are not listening – they are not sufficiently engaged with the organisation to read the communiqués or sufficiently inspired by the vision to find it memorable.

The answer they were providing was therefore quite different to the question the management thought they were responding to.

The ability to ask timely, pertinent and searching questions and the ability to interpret answers are two of the most important skills of management.  To improve your skill, when asking a question, pause to consider whether the question is specific enough, whether it will solicit information that will be useful as opposed to just interesting and whether your question is targeted in the right area or to the right person.

When listening to an answer, ask yourself what the real question is that the person is answering.  Is it the one asked of them or are there deeper, possibly hidden issues, that might be influencing their response.      

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.