In a recent blog, John Hagel points out that influence is becoming more and more challenging. Yet the ability to influence others is the key to setting big things in motion both on an organizational and individual level. What tool, he asks, is the most valuable for dealing with that challenge? It used to be that the person and organization with the best answers had the most influence. But now, he argues, it is the person and organization with the best questions.
That’s not immediately obvious. What Hagel understands is that though the industrial economy of the 20th century was based on flows of materials (hard, measurable stuff), today’s economy is based on flows of information (soft, ambiguous stuff). We built our influence through great manufacturing businesses because we had the answers to the problems our world faced. As individuals, we built our networks by bringing answers to people who were ready to embrace and value them.
But in today’s world, answers decay rapidly. Technology tries to keep up with new answers, but inevitably fails because the answers today are not the answers three months from now. So, Hagel argues, in this environment the greatest values come from questions that “no one had even thought to ask but that help to focus attention and effort on promising, previously ignored areas.” Hagel recognizes that language matters in the 21st century knowledge economy in ways of which business people of the 20th century industrial economy were clueless.
In his blog, Hagel points out the obvious: not all questions are created equal. He suggests a number of approaches to asking questions and then why they work to expand influence. Although questions can expand influence, he writes that the focus on questions rather than answers displays a level of vulnerability that builds trust, trust-based relationships and, I’ll add, power and influence.
The key issue causing resistance to questioning is personal vulnerability. But actually vulnerability has more than one meaning and context. You’re on the way to an executive position, but for a number of personal and team reasons, you blunder. And a major, tough project assignment for which you agitated fails completely. Frustrated by the experience, your manager replaces you with a colleague. You’re a victim of personal vulnerability.
In contrast, it’s exceedingly rare for a business person to put herself in a vulnerable position. So when she finally gets around to asking the important questions, she inevitably engages in what I call a “calculated vulnerability.” And that vulnerability is different than Hagel’s conclusion, one which I’ll discuss in this blog.
The rhetorical function of questions
In our work world of flattened hierarchies with responsibility and accountability pushed down to the lowest levels, asking questions—communication competency—is beginning to rule the roost. As an aside, Harvard’s Boris Groysberg pointed to the same reality when he recently came to the conclusion that leadership is conversation.
The rhetorical function of questions. In a recent blog I wrote about Microsoft’s new CEO and his brilliant use of the rhetorical form of what I called “point-counterpoint.” I pointed to his linguistic success and suggested that new managers could learn from him. This blog moves from the leadership conversation form to the question as a language tool in its own right.
To become a successful leader in today’s world you need to understand what questions are and how they work—in addition to developing their application. And that’s a new, but necessary tool set for most business people.
First of all, the purpose of questions is to provide order. It is actually an enduring pattern of communication, and, like any form, is inherent to the human condition, foundational to all communication, recurring in different times and contexts in response to different issues. Rhetorical forms, like a question, transcend argumentative controversies and restructure existing, or create new, perspectives. They are significant because they lead the listener to anticipate what’s coming next and to be gratified by the sequence.
Baseball games, for example, are driven by an unconscious form(at) that has been created over the years—innings. If it’s the 8th inning and the game is tied, people are anticipating the 9th inning because of the game’s format. The form has parameters that provide both opportunities and constraints. You understand the opportunities and constraints because you understand the form. For example, you know you cannot have a home run or strike-out outside of an inning.
Second, since a question is a form that inherently creates more attention than ideas, statements or proposals that float without a container or that lack a form. In David Goleman’s recent book on focus, a psych study of attention, he writes about emotionally loaded lures that are almost impossible to tune out. If, for example, you’re working on a computer in the coffee shop and you overhear someone mention your name, it’s almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it. You forget your email and the emotional bait captures your attention. Effective questions work just like that. They arouse our interests, serving as stimuli to shift our voluntary attention to highly desirable non-voluntary attention where they have the best chance to succeed.
You’ve seen this process at work in a team setting where team members are conversing about a problem or proposal, but then an effective question gets inserted into the discourse. Suddenly the whole team chimes in at once. You can be certain that if a person builds a reputation for inserting highly significant questions into the conversation, her influence will rocket throughout the organization.
Third, effective questions work to reshape, reframe, reorganize and create new organizational realities such as processes, products and services. Psychologists think about this in terms of the historical theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the excessive mental stress experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs or values at the same time. However, it is highly individualized and often takes a long time to resolve. A far better understanding of what’s happening is what we call the process of “perspective by incongruity.” It’s a device in our rhetorical arsenal that can be used to instantly crack open a conversation.
It’s much like fracking, the hydraulic use of sand, water, and chemicals injected at high pressures to blast open shale rock and release the trapped gas inside. We humans have a well-trained incapacity that strongly resists attempts to alter our perspective. Our sense of “what goes properly with what” requires violation for that perspective to be “fracked”–shattered. It’s the well-thought out and well-placed question that does precisely that, offering the serendipity of influence as reward.
Finally, though I agree with John Hagel that questions within the business culture demonstrate a form of vulnerability, that’s only true initially. The statement of the Gospels, “in weakness is strength” best opens this issue. Effective questions are not coincidental or random, they grow out of knowledge, and knowledge is always linked to power. Knowledge is power and power is influence.
A number of studies reveal this tight correlation. Inkpen and Beamish’s study of the instability of international joint ventures, for example, finds that the acquisition of “local knowledge” by a bargaining power results in eliminating the opposing partner and makes previous bargains obsolete.
So when you engage in calculated vulnerability to ask a question that may create new knowledge, reshape or modify the conversation, you’re well on the way to power and influence.
Most business people, males more than females, are significantly unwilling to ask questions for fear of exposing their ignorance. Hopefully, you now understand that questions are inherently capable of developing very significant influence for the person who understands their use and acquires the competency to ask them. As Hagel concludes, they invite experimentation, tinkering, innovation and discussion as people strive to move beyond imagination to test possibilities.
My personal experience as an executive coach vibrates with the truth of these conclusions. Over the years of working with nearly 500 managers and execs, I made extensive questioning of client recommended interviewees the major piece of initial data gathering. While these experiences exposed me to potential clients, it was the quality of my questions that built the trust to make them actual clients. So when an interviewee said “that’s a fascinating question,” or “I’ve never thought about that before,” I knew that a new client was in the wings. My openness and transparency moved me beyond any sense of vulnerability, and immediately, to power and influence. It’s obvious to me that my thirty year consulting business was built upon questions.