Leadership is easy when everything’s going smoothly and according to plan. The test of good leadership, however, comes when the pressure is on, new challenges pile up and stress levels start climbing off the charts. How can we better understand what makes leadership so especially challenging during those stressful periods? More importantly, how is it that successful leaders negotiate such times with seeming ease, and do so while producing excellent results and creating satisfying workplaces? What can help leaders manage stress and energize their best thinking to meet the inevitable challenges that are hurled their way?
That’s what Sandra wanted to know. Newly promoted to lead a struggling team, she was overwhelmed and anxious, focused on all the things that could possibly go wrong. Without realizing it, she was engaged in worst-case scenario thinking. This kind of thinking undermines our best intentions, ramps up negativity, inhibits collaboration and undercuts strategic thinking and problem-solving.
Sandra’s breakthrough came as she learned to employ the strategies and perspectives of Inquiring Leadership. She fine-tuned her skills for distinguishing between the kinds of questions that had once constrained and even sabotaged her best efforts, and the kinds of questions that could lead her and her team to high levels of engagement, innovation, collaboration and success.
Here are three things inquiring leaders do that make a difference:
1. Recognize the impact of worst-case scenarios on your thinking
Whenever we’re called upon to change or do something new, unfamiliar or scary our brains tend to create a worst-case scenario, as Sandra’s story illustrates. When that happens, it impacts our moods and the questions we ask ourselves and others. Our immediate default reaction is typically a worried, critical “Judger” question such as, “Who’s to blame?” rather than a curious, possibility-based “Learner” question such as, “What can we learn from this?”
Sandra initially asked herself and her team only fear-based Judger questions, based on assumptions of failure. Since questions drive our thinking, behavior and results, her Judger questions and mindset derailed her chances of leading her team in a productive, positive direction. Learning to “switch” her questions to Learner ones enabled Sandra to empower herself and her team to succeed.
2. Pay attention to the questions you ask yourself
We ask ourselves questions all the time, even though we often don’t notice. I call this Question Thinking™ because we actually think with questions. Becoming aware of those internal questions positions you to notice which ones hurt rather than help your moods and ability to think clearly and effectively.
When Sandra learned to simply observe her internal questions non-judgmentally, she was able to understand how her worst-case scenario Judger questions had reinforced her fear of failure. The questions she had been asking herself caused so much anxiety that she felt like she couldn’t think straight. This was actually true because when the fear-based parts of our brains are activated, our thinking tends to narrow into tunnel vision just when we need our peripheral vision for the most comprehensive and creative problem-solving.
As Sandra learned to notice the questions she was thinking with, she was also able to predict the results different kinds of questions would produce. She learned she could choose the questions that were driving her thinking and feelings — and how she could succeed as a leader.
3. Make a habit of asking questions of others
Inquiring leaders use questions as a primary strategy to produce powerful results. Your information-gathering questions help you understand the needs, challenges and contributions of colleagues, team members and stakeholders. You “ask” more than you “tell.” Your questions invite the best thinking, collaboration and engagement as well as a sense of psychological safety for your colleagues and teams.
Sandra learned to ask colleagues the most impactful questions by first asking herself, “What do I want my question to accomplish?” She became more motivated to constantly ask questions of her team when she recognized how many problems resulted from missing important questions. Sandra’s biggest takeaway was recognizing the advantages of understanding the relationship between the kinds of questions she asked and the results she and her team were able to produce.
Remember the advantages that being an inquiring leader holds for you and those around you. Like Sandra, you become more centered, curious, and connected. Paying attention to the questions you ask yourself makes you more thoughtful and strategic. And asking questions of others empowers their engagement and contribution and the results you all are able to achieve together.
Marilee Adams, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and pioneer in the fields of inquiry-based coaching, leadership, and organizational culture. She is CEO/Founder of the Inquiry Institute, a solutions and performance-focused company providing consulting, coaching, training, keynotes, and eLearning. Her newest book is Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching and Results, 4th edition (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022), along with a new workbook Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: Mastering Your Mindset Using Question Thinking (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2022).
This post is created in partnership with Weaving Influence.