To get your team’s best ideas, ask courageous questions.
Have you ever watched a team member do something insightful, helpful, or creative and asked them why they hadn’t shared it with everyone else? Their answer holds the key to unlocking your team’s best ideas and building a team of micro-innovators, problem-solvers, and customer advocates.
If your silent innovator is like most people, she probably told you “I guess I haven’t shared it because no one ever asked.”
But let’s be real, we work with many leaders who ask for ideas, but don’t get the insights they want.
Overcoming Safe Silence
It takes more than a generic “How can we improve?” to draw out your team’s best ideas.
Your team has questions of their own:
- Do you really want to hear what I have to say?
- Is it safe to share a critical view or a perspective different from yours?
- Are you humble enough to hear feedback?
- Are you confident and competent enough to do something with what you hear?
Experiences with leaders who didn’t really want input mixed with these concerns lead many people to default to “safe silence.” If you want to free their best ideas from the prison of safety, you need to address these concerns.
One of the best ways to create safety and draw out your team’s best ideas is to ask courageous questions.
A courageous question differs from a generic “How can we be better?” question in three ways.
First, a courageous question focuses on a specific activity, behavior, or outcome. For example, rather than ask “How can we improve?” ask “What is the number one frustration of our largest customer? What’s your analysis? What would happen if we solved this? How can we solve it?”
Next, a courageous question creates powerful vulnerability. When you ask any of these sample questions, you are implicitly saying “I know I’m not perfect. I know I can improve.” This is a strong message–if you sincerely mean it.
You send the message that you are growing and want to improve. This, in turn, gives your team permission to grow and be in process themselves. It also makes it safe to share real feedback. When you say “What is the greatest obstacle?” you acknowledge that there is an obstacle and you want to hear about it.
Finally, courageous questions require the asker to listen without defensiveness. This is where well-intentioned leaders often get into trouble. They ask a good question, but they weren’t prepared to hear feedback that made them uncomfortable or besmirched their pet project. Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers for – asking for feedback and ignoring it is worse than not asking at all.
When you ask a courageous question, allow yourself to take in the feedback. Take notes, thank everyone for taking the time and having the confidence to share their perspective.
With many courageous questions, you’ll get conflicting perspectives. That’s okay. It’s healthy. Let the team know how you (or they) will decide going forward.
Courageous Questions Unlock Your Team’s Best Ideas
It will take time. The first time you ask, people will probably be tentative. Remember, they’re wondering if you mean it. The more you respond well, the less guarded they will be.
Here are a few more courageous questions to get you started and unlock your team’s best ideas:
- What is the problem we have that no one talks about?
- What do we do that really annoys our customers?
- What is the greatest obstacle to your productivity?
- What must I do better as a leader if we are to be successful?
- What do you think we could do differently next time to help this project (or person) succeed?
- What recommendations do you have before we start on this conversion?
- What are you most afraid of with this program / project / process?
- What is the biggest source of conflict you’re having working with X department? (How might we be contributing to the issue?)
- What’s sabotaging our success?
Once you’ve tried asking a few questions and having genuine dialogue around the answers, it can also work well to give each team member and index card and ask them to come up with their own courageous questions for the group. Then start each staff meeting or huddle with one or two.
When you use courageous questions and allow people to share feedback without defensiveness, you’ll draw out their truly great ideas. Leave a comment and share: “What is your favorite courageous question to ask your team?”