Ask, Don’t Tell - How Agile Leaders Nurture High-Performing Teams

Anthony Mersino
October 26, 2017

One of the most underutilized tools in the Agile Leaders toolkit is the question. Asking great questions is a powerful way to lead and to nurture high performing teams. Done well, this style of leadership moves from directing, telling and commanding to one of curiosity, learning, and adaptation. And it is a style that anyone can learn to use effectively.

Great Leaders Ask Great Questions 

Think about some of the best leaders you’ve ever worked for. Chances are they were adept at asking questions that encouraged people to think and explore new ideas. Good questions allow individuals to figure things out for themselves.

A simple question that I have heard leaders use effectively is, "what is the problem we are trying to solve here?" I've seen that question quickly get teams grounded and focused.

When something goes wrong, the first question a good leader will ask is how have I contributed to this problem? What could I have done to support the teams better? How could I have foreseen this breakdown and helped the team avoid it? Only after evaluating their part in it, should the leader turn their attention to the team, who will be more likely to own their part once the leader has.​ This form of extreme ownership is described in my post on the Agile Leaders Role in Transformation. ​

​By modelling the use of questions, a great leader will create an environment where high performing teams can thrive. Good questions invite intellectual curiosity and create psychological safety which is the key to high performance. (See How to Create High Performing Teams - What I learned from Google).

Avoid Questions That Hurt Team Performance

No one likes to be told what to do. Nor do most people appreciate unsolicited advice. All unsolicited advice is an implied criticism. When we give advice we are communicating that we know more, or have better judgment than the other person. Even if we are just trying to be helpful, unsolicited advice usually comes across as critical and condescending. 

Just as unsolicited advice should be avoided, we should also avoid rhetorical questions or those that imply judgment. Questions shouldn’t be leading or contain implied assumptions. Even if it is subtle, these types of questions will put people on the defensive or offend them as much as an open criticism. Consider the following two questions:

  1. Do you think you should stop criticizing your team members?
  2. What are some more effective ways you could communicate your ideas to your team?

In the first question, there is an obvious implied judgment or accusation that will immediately put the respondent on the defensive. It is also a yes-no question which doesn’t really invite introspection or dialogue.

By contract, the second question is open ended. We are inviting introspection. We want to explore "more effective" approaches vs. saying "good" approaches. Leveraging open ended questions will create the environment for those high performing teams to succeed.

Questions Create an Environment for High-Performing Teams to Grow

Questions have been around for a while. You can trace the use of questions back to the Socratic Method. It is only in recent times that people are seeing the benefit of using questions to help teams grow.

Great leaders don’t “create” high-performing teams so much as they create the context and environment for high-performance. Genuine curiosity helps foster open dialogue and acceptance. But it really needs to be genuine and non judgmental or people won’t feel safe.

Think about what happens in most environments when mistakes are made. The types of questions you might hear are:

  • How could this have happened?
  • Why didn’t you…?
  • Who was supposed to…?
  • What do you need to do about …?

These types of questions don’t foster learning and growth. They actually delay the admission of mistakes. Or they lead to cover-ups, fault-finding, and finger-pointing.

Used properly, questions can help to transcend the blame game and focus attention on learning and growth. The time it takes for individuals and teams to own the mistake, to learn from it, and to change behavior is a lot shorter in an environment of learning and curiosity.

Leaders Need to Take Care When Asking Questions

In his book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein explores questions as a method for leaders to improve communications and collaboration. Schein contends that leaders need to demonstrate humility to engender trust, so that the team member can be open and helpful. They need to be genuinely interested in the other person in order to build that positive relationship. They can't fake it.

With humility and genuine interest, leader make it possible for those being led to speak the truth. We have all heard of the "greening" of status reports to describe the way that bad news gets filtered and sanitized as it moves up the leadership chain. Schein says to counter that, leaders need to build relationships of trust and safety. Without safety, Schein says:

"They will not be able to tell whether or not communication is good because in many situations the subordinate will not admit they don't understand or they may withhold critical safety information."

Schein suggests that leaders start with self-disclosure before asking personal questions of the team member. If the leader demonstrates personal vulnerability, then that will help to legitimize Humble Inquiry to the rest of the team.

How to Create Good & Powerful Questions

As an Agile Coach, I've found that good questions are one of my best tools for working with individuals or teams. Several years ago I came across an article by Eric Vogt that described powerful questions. Vogt defines a powerful question as one which:

  • stimulates reflective thinking
  • challenges assumptions
  • is thought-provoking
  • generates energy and a vector to explore
  • channels inquiry, promises insight
  • is broad and enduring
  • touches a deeper meaning
  • evokes more questions

Vogt goes on to describe the elements that go into making a question more powerful:

  • Question Scope - The wider the scope of the question, the more powerful the question can be. Is the question about 1 person, the team, the company, the country, the globe or the universe?
  • Construction - The construction of the question means the words we use. Questions with a yes or no answer are not powerful, nor are those that start with where, when, which or who. Questions that begin with what, why, and how tend to be the most powerful.
  • Assumptions or Context - We mentioned above the impact of assumptions on the effectiveness of questions.

Additional Resources About Using Questions to Nurture High-Performing Teams:

I hope this discussion on the use of questions has sparked your interest. We've only scratched the surface here so if you are interested in learning more about questions to build high performing teams, here are some resources I recommend.

  1. Humble Inquiry - As mentioned above, Edgar Schein looks at the use of questions by leaders, to open up communications and understand what is really going on.
  2. The Art of Powerful Questions - The book by Eric Vogt may be out of print but you can find excellent summaries on line in various places including here.
  3. Appreciative Inquiry - This book by David Cooperrider and Diane Whitney describes a group or company-based approach for exploring new ways of thinking using questions.
  4. Co-Active Coaching - This book by Henry and Karen Kimsey-House is broader than just questions, but includes this great list of questions used in co-active coaching that I find really helpful.
  5. There are many great lists of powerful questions available via search. Favorites of mine include this Forbes Article about the 35 questions that will change your life and this list of 25 powerful questions from the International Coach Federation.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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