Here’s a little secret that really shouldn’t be a secret: leaders ask questions. Everyone thinks leaders have all the answers, but true leaders knows that if you ask questions, it gets people thinking. But not just any questions, and not in just any way.

In an age of VUCA, how do leaders ask questions to keep things moving and help their teams grow?

Effective communication is perhaps the most important quality for a leader, and the most effective people at the helm of a team know that leaders ask questions. GLOBIS alumnus and organizational development executive Leo Castillo explains this important (and often overlooked) element of leadership communication.

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Why is it important to believe that leaders ask questions?


The first thing we need to look at is what people think what a leader should be. And most people think that the best leaders are the ones who can answer all the questions. As if people come to me and I can give it all to them. And I think that used to work before. However, what we’re finding is that the world is changing so fast. There’s a term we use to describe how the world is. It actually came from the military, and it’s now used to describe business. The term is VUCA. VUCA means volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I can’t think of a better way to describe how the world is right now. It’s really changing so fast, you know?

One way to look at this—this is from a video I saw before—is that a leader is like the captain of a ship. And the ship is supposed to go in this direction, right? But the question is—you know, because the world’s changing so fast—what if you need to go to a new location that no one’s been been to? Or what if, suddenly, there’s no more water? What if suddenly the concept of a ship is different now? What do you do?

That’s what we’re learning now. I think this is the question. The thing is that most leaders think they always need to have the answers. But because the world is changing so fast, nobody can have the answers.

Now at the same time what’s been happening is that information is becoming more available. You know, I think there’s probably a lot of people think we’re dumbing down, but this is really the smartest people have ever been in the history of the world because information is so available. So as a leader, I think what we need for [people] to move, to fight VUCA, to work against all of this complexity is to use the wisdom of the people around you. And the way you do that is by asking questions.

A good leader is able to ask questions from what we call a “learner mindset.”

Leo Castillo

Most people think that, you know, when you respond to something, you give statements. Now statements activate your logical brain. You say things that have worked before. And normally that can work, right? But when you ask questions, it’s a little different. When you ask questions, it activates a different part of your brain. You become more imaginative. You look at possibilities. So maybe by doing this, you can find new ways that have never been done before.

A good leader should be able to ask questions in order to address VUCA. Because the world is changing; you need new solutions.

One last thing—people, leaders, come to me and always say, “I want to empower my people! I want to make them innovative! I want to be collaborative!” I tell them, “Then don’t give them answers, give them questions.”

How should leaders approach asking questions?

Castillo (02:42):

So why don’t leaders ask questions? Why do people not ask questions in the first place? And I think there’s a stigma with questions.

The most common thing is, “We don’t have time for questions. We’ve got to do this now!” That’s one. The second thing is that if you ask questions, it feels like you’re challenging things. It feels like you’re not agreeing. So there’s a stigma that if you ask questions, you’re not really helping. But I think the problem is that we were never really trained how to ask questions. I mean, have you attended a class on how to ask questions? We know questions are great, but no one has really taught us how to do it. I’ve learned that, to ask questions, the biggest thing is you need to have the right mindset.

A lot of times, especially for leaders—let’s say there’s a project. The project did not get the result you wanted. And then you ask questions. And normally a leader who is, you know, maybe a little new, comes from what’s called a “judger mindset.” “Why did this happen? Who is at fault here?” And these are the questions that nobody likes. It’s disempowering, but it’s questions that you need to ask. But a good leader is able to ask the same questions, but from what we call a “learner mindset” so that they will be able to create results. So instead of asking, “Who’s at fault here?” You look at, “OK, so tell me what happened.” Rather than asking, “Who’s creating the delay?” you say “Let’s look at the process. Where are the bottlenecks?”

I think that is more productive. That is more constructive. You get more [from] people. Because if you ask the first one, the judger mindset question, people get defensive. You will not get learning that way. You will not solve VUCA that way. But if you, ask the learner questions, then that’s how you can go across the ambiguity. That’s how you go across the complexity. So if you want to learn how to ask better questions, adopt the learner mindset, not the judger mindset.

If you avoid group think, you will get better solutions.

Leo Castillo

What is VUCA Prime, and how can it help leaders counteract VUCA?

Castillo (04:49):

So I talked about VUCA earlier. VUCA, again, is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Very creative people came up with that. So how do you address VUCA? You address it with something called VUCA Prime. What is VUCA Prime? It’s vision, it’s understanding, it’s clarity, and agility.

And when you think about it, the only way you can get this is by asking questions. How many times have we had meetings where people are fighting, and then somebody says, “Wait, where are we doing here again?” And then suddenly it gets everybody back together. That’s vision.

If you’re looking at this whole thing, you don’t know what the problem is. You try to use critical thinking in order to dissect it—that’s understanding. And that’s clarity.

Then, if you get more people involved, then that’s agility. So the way to handle VUCA is VUCA Prime: vision, understanding, clarity, agility.

What is group think, and how leaders ask questions to overcome it?

Castillo (05:49):

The world’s not perfect. It’s not perfect, and we’ve had a lot of mishaps along the way. Somebody made a study of some of these mishaps, and they found that for many mishaps, they could have been avoidable. And the way they could have been avoided is if somebody stepped in and asked the right question. Questions like, “Wait, is this the right thing we’re doing? I mean, wait, what if this happens? What if this doesn’t happen?”

But what happens is that—there’s this thing called “go fever.” People just want to get it DONE. Which is a great quality. You just want to get it done. You want to get results quickly. But what happens is that people just forget to ask questions. And they fall for group think. Because everybody’s thinking the same way, they actually ignore asking questions.

If you look at the examples—the Titanic or Challenger—if a person had shown up and asked the right question, then maybe it could have taken away the group think and the go fever. Maybe things could have been better. When I talk about in incorporations and they do their own postmortem of what went wrong, that’s what they always say: “We should have asked more questions when we were doing it.”

Part of it is that we need to have a culture that is comfortable asking questions [with people] who know how to ask the right questions. That’s how you can avoid group think. And if you avoid group think you will get better solutions.

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