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?

Posted in Communication and tagged , , , , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. Great post and so very true. I struggled with this during my first tenure as a team leader, asking ALL the wrong questions. As a result, not only did I shut down my team, I completely lost their trust and willingness to perform. It was was a tough and costly lesson, but I did learn from it.

    Moving forward as a leader, I began using questions that opened people up and showed that I valued their thoughts and input. Needless to say that approach was far more effective as my team really became invested in everything we were doing and owned the results.

    • Bill, thanks so much for sharing your story. I really appreciate you joining the conversation. I like what you add about it helping the team to “own the results.” Exactly.

  2. Great post. This makes me think of how I ask questions to my 7 year old. The questions communicate a message- not just a query.

  3. Questions that shut people down are leading ones and closed ended ones. Your disengaged questions can easily be turned around so they’re engaging. For example, “What do I have to do to get you to” can be modified to say “Who would you like to show up as so you feel great about this project?”

  4. I like this post and I agree many questions can be disengaging. In particular – leading questions like: “Don’t you agree that…” or “Isn’t it obvious that…” followed by an opinion or an assumed obvious response mostly make me want to exit a conversation.

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