The Four-Word Question

The quality of questions we ask determines the effectiveness of our leadership and lives. As leaders, we are paid to deliver results for our people, companies, customers, owners, and communities. Along the way, we ask any number of questions, often ones that don’t serve us because we frame them negatively. The first thing to consider when setting off to uncover the answer to a problem is whether we are asking a high-quality question. If we are, the laws of cause and effect will apply and result in a higher-quality answer.

There is a single, four-word question that, when asked early and often, helps unlock our potential: How do we know?

How do we know that we are successful? We set a standard for performance and measure ourselves against it.

How do we know we are up to the challenge? We prepare a plan, a process, and ourselves. And then we act.

How do we know we have enough information for the decision? We define the problem; we listen, we discuss, we learn, we decide. And then we act.

How do we know what the CEO thinks? We ask her.

How do we know it’s safe to speak? We check our motives — making sure we are serving, not self-serving. We test our message with a colleague, partner, or coach. We watch the room for an opening. We use tentative language and speak our minds.

What makes how do we know a great question? First, it’s not self-limiting. It generates multiple answers, none of which are yes or no. Second, we can ask it about anything which creates more possibilities. Third, it’s iterative as the first answer often leads to a second how do we know that? Fourth, it’s a question that lies at the root of knowledge creation, which is an empowering construct. Fifth, it’s a question that generates fact-based answers to help make better decisions. Sixth, it is more likely to start discussions and gather evidence that leads to collaborative solutions.

Too often, we lead with reasons or foregone conclusions — It’s not my fault. I’m afraid to ask the CEO anything. The last time I spoke up, my head was nearly chopped off — that won’t happen again. I’m not ready to take that on. My dog ate the project. These reasons and conclusions shut off access to better answers. Each exists mainly in our heads and doesn’t benefit from shining the bright light of inquiry on the issue.

Takeaway: The question how do we know paves the way for dialogue and puts better answers in our path. As leaders, those answers largely determine the level of our success, and dare I say it, happiness.