A Question of Intimidation: Questions that Shut People Down

Questions are powerful. They can motivate, and inspire deeper thinking.

Great questions empower.

Questions can also intimidate, frustrate and shut down people down.

The most dangerous are those where the leader already “knows” the answer and is looking to see if the person will “get it right.” Closed ended questions can have a similar impact, if the leader only wants to hear “yes” or “no.”

Such “tests” may have their occasional place in ops reviews and interviews, but the side effects can be deadly as a general leadership practice.

Questions that Intimidate and Disengage:

These questions seem to rear their ugly heads most frequently under times of stress and urgency precisely when more calm and creative thinking would be most beneficial.

  • What do I have to do to get you to.
  • Why did you do that?
  • Did I ask you to do that?
  • Is that really working?
  • What is your experience in this area?
  • Who gave you the authority to make that decision?
  • Is that your final decision?
  • Are you sure about that?
  • What makes you think that will work?
  • ???

In Dan Rockwell’s post, Too Many Questions, he shares that teams asking “too many questions” can be a symptom of a micromanaging leader. He shares too many questions can come from “delegating tasks versus results, vision and resources.”

If employees are intimidated or fearful, they may ask questions in order to keep from “getting it wrong.” In that environment, the leader is limiting herself to her own thinking. Such leadership diminishes the current scene and future team functioning.

It’s a cycle. If a leader asks too many closed-ended or intimidating questions, the team gets scared and starts asking more questions to ensure they get it “right.” The sad truth is that this cycle limits creativity and diminishes productivity. In this case, only one brain is really doing the thinking.

What questions do you find most intimidating?