"Any questions?"

Ironically, that's one of the most useless questions in business. I've sat in many meetings where an offer to take questions has been nothing more than a formality. Whether out of disengagement or fear, many people avoid asking questions of leaders and teammates.

That's why at a recent "town hall" meeting of my company, I offered $10 Starbucks cards to anybody who asked what I called a "level nine or 10" question, something well out of the scope of the day-to-day business. The first thing somebody asked was whether I was planning to sell the company.

Just like that, we had a dialogue. Other employees then felt empowered to ask their own candid questions.

This was crucial because even the most comprehensive presentation or meeting can't give an audience all the answers. Questions allow space for an issue that you haven't anticipated, a game-changing idea or a difficult conversation that might otherwise have festered just below the surface.

Hashing out ideas in the open air can prevent true disasters, such as the ones that befell Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes and Fyre's Billy McFarland. Both leaders demanded absolute adherence to their visions, and they dismissed any attempts to question the efficacy of their ideas. They wound up with failed businesses and tarnished reputations.

Even on a smaller scale, a company that doesn't invite questions is destined to underperform. As a leader, you need to empower your team to ask the kinds of questions that can move your venture forward. Here's why:

1. Questions generate ideas.

Change happens when we examine things with a critical lens. Many of the world's best ideas were generated precisely because somebody challenged the status quo and asked whether something better was possible.

At Owned Outcomes , co-founder Krupa Srinivas says, "We often remind each other that critical thinking isn't about writing up a 17-page thesis on a burning problem. It's about feeding off each other's ideas and taking one nugget at a time."

One voice often isn't enough to generate a great idea. That's why it's vital to surround yourself with people who will scrutinize your thoughts, shape them and create a better final product. The problem is, probing questions often come across as confrontational, and nobody wants to upset or embarrass their boss.

To address this, leaders have to set the tone and demonstrate that it's safe to ask questions. Inviting your team to ask honest questions will give your ideas a productive challenge that will shape and improve them.

2. Questions reveal blind spots.

Even the most insightful people have blind spots. While focused on making key decisions, leaders sometimes fail to recognize how their actions affect others in the organization. Opening a dialogue and pushing your team to ask questions will give you the chance to discover such missed potential impacts.

I have had this experience at Acceleration Partners. At one point I thought that our employee benefits were competitive, until I noticed we were getting a lot of questions about our healthcare coverage. This helped my team identify a pain point that could have led to employee turnover.

Even the best leaders miss details. If you empower your team to ask critical questions, you may learn about a fixable problem before it's too late.

3. Questions create clarity--and better performance.

In his book The Advantage, author and leadership expert Patrick Lencioni explains why clarity is vital to a healthy organization. "Alignment is about creating so much clarity that there is as little room as possible for confusion, disorder and infighting to set in,"  he says.

Lencioni asserts that organizations are most functional when all team members understand the goals of the company and are clear about how their roles contribute. Oftentimes, that means employees need to ask questions to achieve the clarity that generates commitment.

Nevertheless, some people are afraid to ask questions. That's why I make sure my entire team knows that I would rather have people ask questions than work without full knowledge of their roles. It's also one reason why I offered gift cards as a prize to employees who asked great questions at our town hall. I wanted to incentivize my team and make them feel comfortable asking honest, thoughtful questions of even the most prominent leaders of our business.

Organizations are complex. To keep a handle on this complexity, the best leaders tap into the full potential of their teams by seeking ideas, constructive feedback and clarifying questions. How many meetings have you been in where the Q&A section was nothing but awkward silence? Those moments are a missed opportunity.

Pushing your team to ask questions will produce better ideas, uncover detrimental blind spots, improve organizational clarity and strengthen your business. Next time you ask for "any questions," make sure your team is ready to speak up.

Published on: Apr 8, 2019
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