I recently read a well-intentioned article focused on leadership. It concluded that the most important question a leader can ask employees is, "What results did you achieve today?" At its core, "What results did you achieve today?" is a maintenance and monitoring question. There is no doubt these things play a crucial role in any venture. And in the right circumstances and used sparingly, such a question could be powerful. But if your goals include long-term productivity, low turnover, and a truly adaptable, innovative organization, this could be the very question and thinking that ends up leading you away from what you seek. Try these three questions instead.

1. Why are you here?

Without a doubt, every company and every employee wants results. They are the most obvious and tangible indication that what we are busy doing is actually doing something. But productivity disconnected from meaning quickly loses value. The science of productivity is clear: people don't simply want to produce, they want to know that their efforts matter, make a difference, and have impact. In total, they want to know that their presence adds value to the larger whole. The question "Why are you here?" is one of the most powerful ways to reveal if the effort and the results matter in the ways we want and need it to matter.

I used to ask this question of college students in an entrepreneurship course I taught for many years. I would purposefully ask it about a third of the way through the course--long enough for most students to have locked in, even if subconsciously, to a reason for why they were in the course, but not so far in that they (or I) couldn't course correct. I'd give them 60 seconds to privately write down their answers. Then I'd ask them by a show of hands how many of them answered the question from the perspective of "this room, in this course, the one they just happen to have scheduled right now." This was the most obvious answer and thought, one based on duty and a desire or an obligation to produce, and typically the majority of hands went up. But then I'd then ask about a cascade of other possible scenarios--did you answer "why are you here" geographically, as in why are you on this campus, in this city? Or perhaps did you think of it on a larger scale--as in, why are you here in this time in history, or on this part of this planet?

Every time I conducted this exercise hands went up in every single category. Each classroom of students was a mosaic of motivations. Even that simple knowledge changed perspectives, bound people together in a new way, and often altered our direction as a class. It works in organizations too and with surprising efficiency, because it speaks of "purpose" and puts purpose squarely on the table as a priority, as an ongoing discussion, and as a driver of priorities and actual work, rather than relegating purpose to a long lost goal hidden away in some dusty strategic plan somewhere.

2. What are you mastering?

Purpose has a partner: mastery. We humans don't just show up at our jobs to produce for the mother ship. We want to be productive in our own right. In a word, we want to master something--always, and ongoing. It's in our nature. So within the context of the larger purpose, the question of "What are you mastering?" reminds leaders and those they lead that need to tend to our own personal betterment too. When we can do that for ourselves individually and move the organization forward, the return to both individual and organization not only increases, the odds of a valuable and lasting impact rise as well.

The individual employee who asks the question "What am I mastering?" begins to consciously see themselves in their work and inevitably sees and seeks purpose. But the leader who asks this question of employees sees something even greater: the patterns of strengths, the early warning signs of deficiencies, and the opportunities and possibilities yet to be seized across the organization. It's a reality check laying bare true possibility while laying aside the mythologies of command and control too many organizations and leaders tell themselves.

3. What you see?

When you know why you are where you are and what you seek, you cannot help but see in a new way--a skill that has become a necessity in an environment that demands we adapt continuously and innovate perpetually. Such demands cannot be met alone. It takes many to see. The wisest, most innovative, and most successful leaders are the ones who ask, "What do you see?" of every member of their team, and listen for the patterns and possibilities in their answers. Funny thing--when they do, they find that individual purposes fuse and become shared purpose, and that what the organization is able to master together expands. Productivity, the kind we really want, naturally follows. It follows, but rarely leads.

Published on: Apr 6, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.