Have you ever worked for a boss who always told you what to do? How did that feel? Wouldn't you have preferred to work for someone who asked you what you should be doing instead? It turns out that difference is the secret to persuading people--regardless of where you rank in your organization.

It used to be that kings and queens were the ones who could just tell people what to do and people would act without hesitation (or it would be off with their heads). We saw some of this carry over into the military and even the corporate world. But those days are over. It's simply not enough to rely on positional power to get people to act the way you might like them to.

And yet, many people struggle with getting things done if they don't operate in a position of power--which might be a title, a certain level of expertise, or even seniority inside an organization. But is there a way you get people to do things for you if you can't simply order them to do them? When you don't have any of those sources of power?

The answer, it turns out, is to ask questions.

Let me explain.

When you study great CEOs, you see that they don't rely on their title to persuade people to act on their agenda. Rather, the best CEOs rely on asking open-ended questions as a way for people to come up with solutions that they immediately buy into. These conversations can be skillfully guided to answers that the CEO can agree with, even if they aren't exactly what they would have selected.

Let's say that you want to change the compensation program inside your organization. One option you could try and make that change is to just issue an order: "We are going to change the comp plan," you might say. But do you think your team will be engaged in implementing that plan? Probably not, is my guess. You might even run into significant pushback from within the organization because people don't know why you want to make the change in the first place. The normal first reaction to abrupt change is to slam on the brakes.

But what if you started the process by asking open ended questions instead. Maybe you could begin by asking questions like: What is the cost of keeping our compensation plan the way it is? Or, what would happen if we changed our compensation plan? Or even, what could we accomplish if we changed our compensation plan?

When you ask open-ended questions like these, you encourage people to give you long form answers instead of simple Yes or No responses.

The beauty of this approach is that it creates buy-in from the people answering the questions. Rather than being told what to do, they are coming up with the plan--which means they have a much greater sense of ownership and engagement in making it come to pass.

It's worth noting that most leaders probably already know the answers they are looking for. But with certain issues, there is real power in knowing when to delegate a decision. Great leaders also leave the door open to hear new ideas they hadn't thought of when they ask questions instead.

It turns out that great salespeople also ask a lot of questions. But it's also important to acknowledge that not all questions are good ones. What you don't want to do is come across like you're trying to manipulate someone. Think about a bad experience you might have had with, say, buying a car. Did you find yourself in a situation where the sales person was trying to influence you by asking high-pressure questions like: "If I could get the car in blue today with the payment you want, would you buy that car today?"

There's a certain "ick" factor with that kind of questioning, right? That's because they are closed ended questions, designed to be answered with a simple "Yes" or No".

But what if that salesman had taken a different approach. What if he had asked questions like: What color car do you want? How much are you willing to pay per month? When do you want the car?

These are actually the same questions as in the earlier example--just reengineered to be more open-ended. When the salesperson asks you the questions this way, you are now providing answers to the salesperson he can work with without trying to force you to act through Yes / No questioning. You don't feel manipulated; you actually feel like he's helping you.

The lesson is, therefore, that whether you are a CEO, a sales person, or someone looking to build influence inside your organization, ask a lot of questions to persuade people to come around to your way of thinking.

To learn about other ways great CEOs inspire action in others, check out my new book, Great CEOs Are Lazy.

Published on: Aug 2, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.