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Culture   Leadership

Warning for leaders: 5 situations where it’s better not to ask

It's good to be good at asking questions. Also as a leader. But good management is also very much about when NOT to ask questions. The following are examples of five situations where you should carefully consider your questions.

Many leaders use questions to disguise their own power. Using questions in situations where the intention is to provide feedback will either play out as manipulation or turn into a responsibility game. If, as a leader, you try to convince yourself that you are "just asking” a question, when both you and the employee know very well that there is a “right answer", then you have actually abdicated your managerial responsibility.


1. You think it's better that the employee realizes it for themselves

Many managers have taken a coaching course but forget that although management and coaching can be combined, they are basically two different disciplines. If you go around and semi-coach your employees all the time, it becomes difficult for them to see where you stand. Some managers use this as a cop out. When you semi-coach, you keep asking questions until the employee understands what you want.

Here’s an example: You have an employee who is rude to his colleagues, and now you ask him: "How would you like to be spoken to?" Hidden behind this question is a clear reprimand and a request to the employee to speak respectfully to his colleagues. “I have noticed that your tone with your colleagues is very harsh. I need you to show more consideration,” is what you could say instead. In many situations, you saying what you think, desire, demand and require is a lot more fair than asking.

2. You ask questions that are not questions

At times our workplaces seems full of non-question questions: "Should we get started again?" "Wouldn't it be nice if someone arranged it there?" "Would this not be an interesting task for you?" Most kids will call you out on it when you do this: "Shouldn’t you be in bed now?” “ No,” the child will respond. Your employees know you are not really asking when you throw out these non-questions. The problem is that you are squandering questions and muddling communication. In situations where you are genuinely asking out of curiosity or where you are actually negotiating, your employees might think you are asking them another non-question. So it should not be: "Should we start again?" It should be: "Now I think we need to get started again." Or "Now let’s get going again."

3. You ask questions based on incorrect assumptions

All questions are based on assumptions, and if you ask a question based on an assumption that your employee does not share with you, you lose authority as a leader. "Why haven't you cleaned up after yourself in the meeting room?" "I haven't used the meeting room." "Where do you see yourself in our organization in two years?" "I don't see myself in this organization in two years." Stop before you ask and consider what assumptions your question is based on. Are you sure of your assumptions? Or should you ask from a more neutral and unassumed starting point? "Do you know who's been in the meeting room?" or "How do you feel about working here?"

4. You ignore power dynamics when you ask your question

Behind every question lies an intention. The intention may be to solve something, get something confirmed, or influence something. And even if you make the effort to ask in a neutral manner, the person you ask will read an intent into your question. For managers, it is particularly difficult as neutral questions. If you ask, "What are you doing?" your employee can think: Is the boss dissatisfied with something? The employee you ask will interpret your intent with any question you ask as an attempt to confirm a suspicion, or influence you to do something specific.

This is quite natural because the power-free space does not exist. At least not in the relationship between manager and employee. The question, "How do you think things are going?" Is a good example. Almost no matter what tone of voice you use, the question will be perceived not only as if you do not think it is going very well, but also as if you would like the employee to admit it herself. Let’s say you say: “I can see that you have a lot of absences on Mondays, what is it caused by? I'm just asking.” No, you're not just asking. You have a suspicion that you are trying to get confirmed. Present your intention when you ask. “You have a lot of absences on Mondays. I want you to correct that. Do you need help with that?”

5. You forget to let the employee ask questions

When you ask, it's a bit like standing in a dark room with a flashlight and pointing to something. Your question lights up a range of responses like the flashlight casts a ray of light. The answers you can get are limited by where you think to point the question flashlight. Therefore you will get completely new information and perspectives if you instead let your employee ask the question. What does he want to illuminate?

A good example is the annual development conversation between managers and employees. Many managers hand out a sheet of generic questions, formulated by the HR department, which the employee is asked to answer. A process that does not result in actual employee development. Instead you could prompt the employee to ask her own questions about her work and workplace. That way, you would know much more about what is at stake. The questions will illuminate what the organizations is concerned with and where the employee sees herself now - and in five years.

Note: The above post is an English rewrite of the Danish Lederweb article “Advarsel: 5 situationer hvor du spørger forkert“ co-authored by Anders Stahlschmidt, Partner at Lumholt & Stahlschmidt Kommunikation & Pia Lauritzen, Founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest.


Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen

Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.

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