Questions are directly related to a board’s ability to learn and understand, which is fundamental to its ability to ‘think things through’ and make good decisions. History is replete with tales of the dire consequences experienced by organisations whose boards were not good at asking questions. This reinforces the idea that a governing board’s real 'value added' lies in the quality of its members’ questioning—of each other, of executives and other staff, of advisers and key stakeholders.
Unfortunately, asking high-quality questions is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Even experienced boardroom practitioners do not have highly developed skills in this area. This article explores some of the issues and suggests ways in which directors and boards can develop their ability for effective inquiry.
The need for a ‘questioning’ climate
While expectations (and practices) have generally changed, there are undoubtedly some vestiges of a traditional, conservative boardroom culture that considered directors who asked ‘hard’ questions to be disrespectful, even rude. It is still common for ‘dumb’ (or ‘unnecessary’) questions to be discouraged, even put down, through a variety of both subtle and not-so-subtle techniques. The fear of appearing foolish, ignorant, or out of step is still alive and well in many boardrooms, and the consequent risk of ‘group think’ is high. Where there are domineering chairs and autocratic chief executives, this risk even greater.
A range of individual fears also pose barriers to the development of a questioning boardroom culture. For example, the fear that as directors we might:
- not have the 'right' answer and be ridiculed or marginalised
- reveal that we don't know something we (or others) think we should
- be considered ‘unsupportive’ or even antagonistic
- cause upset by creating a situation that feels like too much like an inquisition
- get an answer we would not like—leading to a board decision we would prefer not be made.
A boardroom climate that does not support effective questioning allows important assumptions to go unacknowledged and untested. Unfounded conclusions can be accepted, and prejudice and complacency can persist. Boards that do not inquire thoroughly of the matters coming before them are likely to have a distorted sense of reality. Chief executives unaccustomed to close questioning can easily become overconfident and if questions do arise, respond defensively as if under attack.
The tendency of most boards to be pushed for time is another barrier. When there are pressures on a board to keep its meeting moving, directors are often reluctant to ask questions that might prolong discussion.
Many boards just want to jump straight into ‘solution mode’ before they have a collective understanding and appreciation of a problem. Effective directors have developed the ability to ask the type of questions that contribute to better problem definition. By their nature, good questions help boards to think clearly, logically, and strategically, expanding the range of possible solutions and leading to more effective choices.
Effective questioning helps directors and executives develop a broader and deeper understanding of important issues facing the board. Exploring issues and problems from different points of view assists in gaining a greater appreciation of their complexity.
Questioning opens new doors to fresh thinking and new insights and ideas. A board is able to act more decisively and confidently when it has conducted a thorough inquiry rather than relied on a narrow range of resources, opinions, and perceptions.
When a board appreciates the value of questions, its members are more likely to view each other as resources. A director who is a persistent and effective questioner is more likely to be valued as a ‘team player’ than resented as an obstruction. Not all board members are ‘experts’. More of the right type of questioning reduces the need for any single director to have all the answers.
A positive boardroom climate for questions improves communication and listening and reduces the risk of directors and executives misjudging or even mistrusting each other's motives. Asking questions helps board members test the assumptions they make about each other's thinking. A questioning climate in which people feel safe to ask (and answer) questions that in different circumstances might seem threatening, helps develop a climate of openness and trust. Without this, directors are unlikely to communicate their feelings about their concerns or to ask questions that address these concerns.
A questioning culture increases confidence that dialogue and debate will occur before major decisions are made. It enhances directors’ feelings of inclusion in board processes and, by creating a sense of ‘ownership’ in the board’s decisions, increases commitment to their implementation. Creating a climate that supports effective questioning not only increases the likelihood of good decisions but, once a decision is made, supports a process of evaluation, learning from what subsequently happens.
Asking the right questions
Many directors appreciate the value of a questioning culture but still find it difficult to express their questions in a way that produces a satisfying response.
Often the nature of the question does not allow a respondent to give his or her best answer. The following types of questions are broadly disempowering.
1 ‘What’s wrong?’ questions
A question that is presented in an aggressive manner or focuses on what (or who) is wrong (or assumed to be wrong), is likely to produce a defensive or reactive response. Questions like ‘Why have you not achieved this quarter’s sales target?’ and ‘Why have you let this project fall behind schedule?’ when asked by someone in a position of authority, will almost certainly put the respondent on the back foot.
2 Closed questions
A question is ‘closed’ when it calls for a specific answer. Often this is just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (Do you agree with this decision?). The respondent may also be asked to provide objective information (How many people will be affected by this decision?) or to select one of a limited number of options (Do you prefer Plan A or Plan B?). Using a closed question in the wrong situation will produce an unsatisfactory answer. Closed questions are, however, appropriate in some circumstances (e.g., to clarify a situation) and can be followed up with additional questions if necessary.
3 Leading questions
A leading question suggests the answer, so is not really a question at all. To the respondent, a leading question often seems a less than subtle attempt to influence, persuade or coerce a particular response. This is done by:
- including the answer within the question (Don't you agree that the Chief Executive is the problem here?)
- including commentary that suggests the expected answer (What do you think about our new director? I don't think he's a team player...); and
- prompting the respondent to produce the expected answer (Everyone else on the board thinks the chairman is the problem. What about you?).
4 Overly complex questions
These typically occur when a questioner puts together an uninterrupted string of questions. The respondent then loses track or becomes confused and may feel they are being interrogated.
Far more productive in the boardroom (as in many other environments) are questions that empower the respondent. Empowering questions do not make presumptions about people’s motives or their performance. They are asked in a sharing spirit that enhances trust and facilitates collaboration and teamwork. They encourage people to think through and ‘own’ their answers. Empowering questions, because they do not presume there are problems or issues, also open people up to new levels of understanding and possibility.
Empowering questions tend to be open-ended and encourage people to expand on their ideas and explore what is important to them. In a group situation, open-ended questions help stimulate discussion.
‘Why’ questions are particularly valuable because they force the board to go deeper into issues of cause and effect, and to explore purpose and assumptions. Boards often waste considerable time because they don’t take the time to test whether each director has the same perception and understanding of a problem.
Toyota developed what is often referred to as the ‘5 whys’ technique. This recognised that a problem as first presented is rarely the most critical thing for a group to work on. Often it is only a symptom of a problem that requires far more digging to be fully disclosed (hence the sequence of asking ‘why?’, hearing the answer and asking ‘why?’ again (and again, and again…).
If the conversation is started with a proposed solution, another way of tackling this challenge is to ask: “What is the problem to which this is a solution?”
There are many different types of open-ended, empowering questions including:
- Explorative questions – opening up new avenues and insights (‘Have you explored or thought of...?’)
- Affective questions – inviting directors to share their feelings about an issue (‘How do you feel about…?’)
- Reflective questions – encouraging further exploration and elaboration (‘You said that…What do you think causes these…?’)
- Probing questions – helping the board go more deeply into a particular issue (‘Can you elaborate on why this is happening?’)
- Challenging questions – challenging the board’s basic assumptions about something (‘Why must it be that way?’)
- Questions that create connections – helping the board adopt a systems perspective (‘What are the consequences of these actions?’)
- Analytical questions – ensuring the board examines the causes and not just the symptoms (‘Why has this happened?’)
- Clarifying questions – ensuring assertions and assumptions do not go unchallenged (‘What specifically did you mean by that?’).
Adopting a mindset helpful to asking (and answering) questions
As directors, it is useful to reflect on what our mindset is when we ask questions. There is a helpful contrast between the questions we ask that are judgmental and those that we ask in a spirit of inquiry. Questioners with a judging mindset tend to believe (or imply) they know the answers already. Questioners with a learning mindset operate out of genuine curiosity because they are trying to learn and/or decide where they sit.
The judging mindset
When we ask questions from a judgmental perspective, we are generally problem-focused and looking to find ‘who is to blame?’ The judgmental mindset tends to be reactive. It assumes the board’s role is more about assigning responsibility for problems—after the fact—than on working with others to find solutions that relate to a better future.
The following questions are judging-type questions:
Why is this a failure?
Whose fault was it?
Why can't you get it right?
Because people naturally fear being judged and found wanting, judging-type questions tend to put them on the defensive. For example, chief executives or other senior executives when subject to judging questions from their board are likely to try to defend their behaviour and/or hide their mistakes. Being judged discourages them from admitting uncertainty, weakness, or vulnerability, which reduces the likelihood that they will be open to asking for help. This can easily lead to a deteriorating board/chief executive relationship and a downward spiral in chief executive and organisational performance.
The learning mindset
Questioners with a learning mindset ask genuine questions. They seek to understand without being accusatory. They do not signal that they already know the answers, but that they are interested and open to new possibilities. A question that reflects a learning mindset is likely to obtain a more complete answer. The engagement between the questioner and the respondent is more likely to be a ‘win-win’.
A learning mindset is reflected in the following questions:
What is good or useful about this?
What possibilities does this open up?
How can we get back on track?
Bob Garratt, the originator of the idea of the ‘learning board’, has pointed out that a board’s ability to learn is fundamental to its ability to make good decisions. So in the boardroom environment, the adoption of a learning mindset should be the proverbial ‘no brainer’. The high-pressure business and political environment in which most organisations operate makes it difficult for a board to get away from a judging mindset. Boards and their managers are responsible for results. When the results don't measure up there is a need to find out what happened and why.
However, Garratt also emphasises the board’s responsibility for creating and maintaining a climate that facilitates wider organisational learning. Finding out what and why does not mean finding out who. The question of ‘who?’ must often be put to one side to get accurate and useful answers to the questions of ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ This requires us to recognise that the way directors ask questions is a crucial ingredient in the wider ‘emotional climate’ created by a board. For example, does the way the board operates mean important information and understanding is driven underground or is there a spirit of open and honest reporting and sharing? Is the board’s process one of genuine inquiry (in the spirit of improving things and moving forward) or is it one of inquisition—behaving in the manner of many journalists who browbeat people to ‘own up’ to real or imagined misdeeds.
Go for it!
To become a better questioner, you must become more attuned to the way you and your colleagues ask and respond to questions. And you must practice. When asking questions:
- be curious rather than demanding
- ask questions in a gentle manner, not arrogantly and aggressively
- ask open questions
- make it clear your question is a genuine attempt to learn rather than to assign blame
- ask one question at a time
- think of your questions being part of a conversation not an interrogation and be prepared to be questioned in turn
- be patient - allow the respondent time to think about their answer and do not interrupt their response. A disciplined silence on your part not only shows that you expect a response but will, at times, entice a more useful and interesting answer than you ever imagined!
- reflect back what you heard and observed
- demonstrate that you sincerely want to grasp what is being said
- indicate your willingness to encounter new ideas and reach new conclusions.
 Bob Garratt (1996) The Fish Rots from the Head. London, HarperCollins Business, Chapter 2