The questions leaders need to ask

Posted by  Mark Schenk —November 6, 2013
Filed in Leadership Posts

From many perspectives, the video below is a clear message to an unappreciative boss. “You don’t value me, I have no life balance…you are a bad boss.” But if your objective was to either retain this employee or to avoid others leaving, this information would fall into the category of ‘interesting but useless’.

When people leave organisations, the reasons they give are often much less insightful than in the video. When asked ‘why are you leaving’ people mostly respond with ‘I’m leaving for a higher paying job’ or ‘it’s a better commute’ or ‘I’m changing my career trajectory’ (a personal favourite). In these circumstances, leaders need to ask different questions.

In 2012, a valued member of the Anecdote team resigned. It came as a surprise to all of us. I asked the usual questions around ‘why are you leaving’ and received plausible responses. I then asked ‘can you tell me about the moment when you first starting thinking about leaving…what happened?’ It took some time, but eventually they revealed two examples of things I had done that made them feel un-valued. These things were completely unintentional, but they had had a big impact. Once the examples were provided I could do something about them…in this case I could apologise. The apology was accepted and happily the resignation was withdrawn. Before I knew about the examples I had no basis for action. Once I had the examples my possible courses of action were crystal clear.

‘Why’ and ‘how’ questions are frequently claimed to be the most important and powerful questions we should ask. And in many circumstances they are, particularly to stimulate creativity or scientific and artistic enquiry.

But, when you want to find out what’s really going on, leaders need to ask different questions; questions that elicit specific examples (stories, anecdotes, experiences) that provide insight into the situation. In these circumstances, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are very useful. ‘What happened?’ is an other useful question. The best question of all is ‘can you give me an example?’ In fact, any question that elicits an example is a good question in these circumstances.

A key skill is to recognise that most of the responses people will give will be opinions, generalisations and assertions. You need to know what an example looks like and keep digging till you get one.

Its pretty much agreed that good questions open the door to dialogue and discovery. But when seeking insight and understanding upon which they can base decisions, leaders need to ask different questions.

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Pete Lloyd says:

    Hey Mark,
    loved this one mate. It really made me stop and think about how to engage with people to get the real story. Love the concept of story telling as well. If I can get a real job, I’d like to know more about Anecdote.
    Cheers mate


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