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Asking the “Powerful Question”: A Leader’s Most Important Skill

February 10, 2016

In today’s fast-paced world of long-term care — fueled by competing priorities, rules, and regulations; more work than time; and the breakneck speed of technology — leaders have a ready supply of quick fixes and fast answers that allow them to get through their day. Workers regularly approach leaders to present a problem, and without hesitation the leader solves the problem, provides the answer, and sends them on their way. The status quo is preserved: The manager is clearly in charge and the worker’s potential insight and creative thinking remains tightly locked down.

And yet, the most valuable thing a leader can do in that moment is to pull back from solving the problem and ask the right question — a powerful question. Powerful questions can unlock creative thought and engage the critical-thinking ability of the person being questioned. Using open-ended language, powerful questions challenge the person to stop and think of the possibilities in a deep and meaningful way that engages their problem-solving skills.

I am reminded of a meeting with the leadership team of an organization that was developing their own household model. The implementation team was asked, “How will we ensure the workers we hire will act in a way that is consistent with the values of the model we have created?” It’s a question that could easily have been addressed by the HR department without regard for other people’s thoughts or ideas.

Instead, the HR Director facilitated a meeting involving people from across the departments in the organization and asked that powerful question. As a result, they developed a behavior-based interviewing process that reflected the values of their model — and could later boast of a very low turnover in the households.

The regular practice of asking the powerful question is a manager’s most valuable skill. This practice assumes the underlying belief that people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole and that you as the leader might not have the answer or the best idea. To lead with the full force of the greatness of your workforce, leaders need to employ their coaching skills; they need to pull back from problem solving; ask the powerful question; and then listen with full attention, curiosity, and belief that the worker has valuable insight to share.

— by Cean Eppelheimer, PHI Organizational Change Consultant

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