People often ask good questions; but that they ask questions is rather less important than how they ask them. Case Western Reserve University Professor David Cooperrider puts what is at stake when asking a question rather deftly: “We live in the world our questions create.” Cooperrider is a pioneer of ‘appreciative inquiry’, which holds that good questions are designed to elicit strengths and framed in positive language are far more beneficial to organisations than questions focusing on what has gone – or is going – wrong.

That may sound counter-intuitive, and that is because when things are uncomfortable or risky, we tend automatically to focus on problems. However, there are several good reasons to avoid doing so. Here are some examples of specific questions effective leaders should avoid.

Bad question #1: What is the problem?

As Cooperrider observed: “’What is the problem, what is going wrong, what is broken, what is our biggest threat?’ is, unfortunately, the starting point of 80 per cent of meetings in management.”

Why is this unfortunate? Because it directs the company’s attention toward weaknesses and failures, fixating minds on problems rather than tapping into existing strengths and opportunities. Much better to try to leverage these with positive questions such as ‘what do we do well, and how can we strengthen that?’ and ‘what is the optimal outcome, and how do we bring ourselves closer to it?’.

Bad question #2: Who is responsible for what went wrong?

This is a scapegoat-hunting question that defensively obscures the fact that most of the time when things go wrong, there are usually plenty of people and processes that share the blame. Pinning it all on one or two is unlikely to lead to genuine productive reform, and leaders who insist on asking the ‘blame’ question are often desperately trying to displace attention from their own real or imagined shortcomings. A much more productive alternative is ‘how can we join forces to minimise or prevent any weaknesses?’.

In part two, I will flag up some more questions that we should avoid asking…

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