How to lead with questions in cognitively diverse ways

Image: Shutterstock
May 21 2024 by Megan Seibel Print This Article

Questions are powerful. They can allow for limited or open-ended responses. They can be finite in seeking detail or endlessly provocative. Asking the right questions for the context, the right questions for the person to whom they are directed, and the right questions at the right time will impact the type of response received. And, as we know, the answers to questions have implications for next steps and outcomes.

Problem-solving is an integral and perpetual responsibility of individuals, teams, and organisations. It is dependent on asking questions that illuminate, clarify, and add value to our work, taking into consideration the content of the problem and the context in which it is being solved and in which the solutions will be applied.

The idea of using questions as a leadership tool has been written about across three editions of the popular book by Michael Marquardt and Bob Tiede. They posit that there is an art to asking questions and creating a questioning culture when leading others. In aligning their writing with the work of Michael Kirton and his development of Adaption-Innovation problem-solving theory, we can dig further into their suggestions by articulating that the “right” questions to ask may be influenced by the cognitive diversity of a team and the preferred cognitive problem-solving style of the individuals that comprise it.

So let’s dig in.

We know from Adaption-Innovation Theory and the KAI assessment that is used to measure our innate preferences, that individuals fall on a continuum of more adaptive to more innovative. More adaptive individuals prefer more structure, with more of it consensually agreed upon, where more innovative individuals prefer less/looser structure and will seek agreement at different times. More adaptive individuals may alter structures as a result of problem solving, where more innovative people may alter structures in order to enable problem solving.

Why the emphasis on structure?

We know that it is paradoxical in nature, simultaneously enabling and limiting to different individuals based on their hard-wired cognitive preferences. When we lead with questions, structures abound in the paradigms and contexts in which the questions are asked, the structural nature of the questions themselves, and the spoken and unspoken understanding of what happens with the answers to those questions. Asking nuanced and detailed questions of a more innovative person may invoke a level of coping to define the boundaries of what is being asked for, where a more adaptive individual may already see exactly what is being elicited.

Asking a detail-oriented adaptor to define next steps for something the team has never encountered before will likely take more time and effort than asking a more innovative individual, who will readily see structural elements in the ambiguity.

Understanding cognitive preferences

To illustrate, imagine a team that is being asked to review the minutia of a process policy that has long-been used in a company, with the intent of developing a similar policy for a newly existing unit. More adaptive team members are likely to start with existing policy structure and language, taking time to adjust and think of how it might apply in an unknown space. More innovative team members, on the other hand, may suggest just starting the work in the new space and figure out what policy elements may be needed, developing them as they go.

Asking more adaptive individuals to forge ahead without policy structure in place would cause stress and require coping, and asking the more innovative to hold back until all policy details are in order would, likewise, feel stressful and less productive. Leveraging style appropriately to accomplish tasks around structural elements increases both adaptive and innovative efficiency.

We also know that team dynamics and the culture of a team or organisation contribute to success. Is the work environment one that permits open inquiry and questioning, admitting when we don’t know the answer, when more information or preparation is needed, or we see a different direction we might take? Is open inquiry and curiosity rewarded or discouraged? Listening and hearing the answers to the questions we are asking among our organisational teams is a critical element in leading change.

Valuing these different perspectives on information gathering and idea generation is borne of our innate cognitive preferences for seeking detail or thriving on the abstract, for clarifying the goals and objectives or making space for ambiguity in the process. While not all input may be deemed appropriate or successful, allowing for inquiry enhances problem-solving culture in the long run and encourages input when it is needed to address complex challenges.

When we take the time to understand our cognitive differences, we can better appreciate those that have different ideas and approaches than our own and leverage those differences to the best outcomes. There may be times in a project when we need a completely different approach suggested by a trusted colleague who, in turn, trusts others team members to ensure that no detail is overlooked in the implementation of that new and different idea. Questions become the integral cog in the wheel that keeps that process moving as we ask for clarity, consider what is missing, and seek understanding of the topic and of one another.

Practically speaking, what does this look like?

There is a section in “Leading with Questions” (Marquardt and Tiede, 2023, p. 175) on problem solving via questions and dialogue. They are thoughtful, open-ended questions that should provoke dialog. Two of my personal favourites are:

  • Does anyone see it differently? How else could we look at this? What other options could we consider?
  • Can you walk me through [your information/data] so that I can see how you got there?

When asking these types of questions, good leadership necessitates that we actively listen and seek to understand the responses we are asking for. Either of these questions will result in different responses from adaptive and innovative individuals; types of approaches articulated in the first question set may be in-paradigm or seemingly tangential. Meanwhile, processes described for gathering and sharing data in the second question may be visualised as a linear list or path of inquiry, or even a mind-map with several directional movements from each step.

The popular phrase “enquiring minds want to know” has been used in a variety of ways over the decades, sometimes followed by a question, sometimes just a curiosity about something witnessed. It speaks to the fact that, as human beings, the thing that sets us apart from other species is the ability to solve problems and engage in higher order thinking toward learning and progress.

The answers to the questions we have asked over generations seed new information that we can then make use of. The cyclical nature of question-and-answers affords considerations for leaders that drive forward momentum and exert influence. If we practice what we preach and ask intentional and purposeful questions, listen to the answers, and collaborate in cognitively inclusive environments to implement response, the outcomes may be exponentially greater than we could have dreamt individually.

About The Author

Megan Seibel
Megan Seibel

Dr. Megan Seibel is Director of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving at Virginia Tech and KAI practitioner. She offers experiential program content around leadership best practice and leads training content around facilitation and strategic planning.