When is Curiosity More Valuable than Knowledge?

There is something powerful about a question.

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We believe so strongly in the power of questions at EY that we even have a saying about it: “The better the question. The better the answer. The better the world works.” Why is our global professional services firm, whose reputation is wholly dependent on the accuracy and quality of our work, so passionately committed to the art of questioning? Because it works. Here’s how.

In a business world where disruption, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal, leaders are less and less able to rely on past experiences and expertise. A 2017 survey from the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation presented findings from more than 1,000 executives across 78 countries and 20 industries. Even though 92 percent of leaders reported to be feeling the full force of digital disruption, less than 15 percent claimed to be “very prepared” to guide their companies through the eye of the storm.

As the fixed expertise-based model of leadership loses relevance, a different form of leadership must emerge that is based on being purpose-driven, curious, agile and connected.

Related: Inside EY’s $22 million strategy to get workers back into the office

We’ve named this approach at EY “leading with questions.” At the center of this approach is asking better questions—those that generate new thinking, spark creativity and fuel meaningful conversations. If the old question was “How can I best communicate what I know?” the new question is, “What learning, innovation or growth is possible in this conversation, and how might we uncover it?” The former approach keeps all the attention on the leader and what they know. It results in tired monologues which are easily tuned out. Leading with questions, by contrast, is naturally inclusive and facilitates connection, creativity and engaged discussions.

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There are three core principles that define the leading-with-questions approach:

  1. Pause before you tell.

When presented with a challenge, we’re hardwired to aim for certainty. We draw on what we already know to find an answer and share our thinking and experience. This “tell” reflex usually works on autopilot, and we feel in control when we’re stating our point of view or sharing information we believe is valuable to solve a problem.

Leading with questions requires us to pause for a moment, and consider what we might learn with a question. Pausing allows us to ask ourselves: “What outcome do I want from this conversation?” “What type of challenge is this?” and, “Is leading with my point of view the best to way get to that outcome?”

There is nothing wrong with sharing a point of view. In fact, having a clearly articulated vision remains imperative to great team leadership. But a vision that isn’t open to new information and input will not evolve or stay relevant. A well-timed pause creates a choice point: is this a moment for advice and instruction? Or for listening and learning?

  1. Curiosity is more powerful than knowing.

There are many situations where the willingness to ask a question is more powerful than what we already know. This doesn’t mean that expertise is unimportant. When we’re solving a problem with a single right answer, our knowledge and experience can be exactly the right tool to grab out of the leadership toolbox. However we often go to our knowledge and experience because it feels good to be an expert, not because it’s the best way to our intended outcome. Leading with questions proposes that we replace the illusion of control with the reality of connection, and the creativity and inclusiveness it fosters.

Here are a few examples of situations where a curious approach pays off:

When you want to spark growth and engagement on your team.

When we ask someone a great question and they stop for a moment to think, amazing things happen. Questions create a physical/physiological change in the brain that doesn’t happen when people are given an answer (“The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight,” John Kounios and Mark Beeman, Annual Review of Psychology, 2014, 65:71–93). New neural pathways are created as we reflect and a spark of energy is produced physiologically when we have an insight, leading to greater excitement about putting the insight into action.

When you want to fuel innovation.

Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “You cannot solve a problem from the level of consciousness that created it.” Translated, this means that some challenges simply can’t be met with past thinking. In those cases, it’s not enough to be the smartest person in the room. A thought-provoking question can change the perspective on an issue and open a dialogue that leads to more innovative solutions.  

When you want to increase trust and connection.

Asking people questions invites them into a conversation, and we’re all hardwired to want to belong and be valued. Conversely, telling people what to do is one-directional and exclusive. From a neuroscience standpoint, it fosters disconnection (“Social: Why our brains are wired to connect,” Matthew D. Lieberman, Crown Publishers 2013). Additionally, when a leader asks for someone’s ideas or opinions and they are included in the final outcome or acted on, it has the effect of increasing the person’s sense of value to the team and their commitment.

  1. Listen for possibilities.

In order to realize the benefits of a question, it must be followed by engaged and curious listening. For most, our default style of listening is to think about what we’re going to say next, and when we shift our attention away from ourselves and toward the other person, we listen mainly for facts and information. Leading with questions requires listening also for importance, energy and meaning. This type of listening enables the shift from a transaction of information to a joint exploration of what could be.

There is further benefit when a leader is willing to step away from judgment as they listen. Better listening means paying attention to what is important and meaningful to the speaker, and focusing on the ideas and emotions behind another person’s point of view (regardless of whether you agree).

If we’re only listening to scan for whether we agree with someone, we’re not getting the most out of the conversation.

Whenever people feel seen, heard and understood, they relax, lower their guard and their brain’s higher functions are activated. This requires us to listen to what’s possible, for where the kernel of greatness might exist in the other person’s point of view.

‘Being the change’

Leading with questions is not a program or initiative at EY; it is the regular practice of pausing, being curious and listening. Our leaders are asked to role model asking better questions and to acknowledge great questions when they hear them from others.

Taking this approach doesn’t mean asking just any question. There’s no getting by without doing your mental homework. Better questions require expertise and knowledge in order to invite a deeper dialogue.  They are open-ended, purpose-driven, and use a curious tone. They constructively challenge assumptions, using “what,” “how” and “what if” question stems to ask the question in a short and simple manner.

Great questioners avoid using closed questions (those leading to a yes/no response).  They are conscious not to ‘lead the witness’ by stating an opinion for the respondent to agree with.  An effective questioner will also be thoughtful about when to use the word, “why,” which can create a sense of defensiveness depending on the context.  In addition, great questioners limit the use of “who,” “when” and “where” question stems to instances where they need to learn factual information, as opposed to generating new thinking.

Getting Started

Here are some everyday ways to practice leading with questions:

* The next time someone approaches you for a private conversation about a problem they’re facing, rather than reaching for your experience and knowledge, ask “How can I be most helpful to you?”

* The next time you’re asked to make a formal presentation, make your opening slide a question that the presentation is intended to answer.

* The next time you’re in a meeting that doesn’t have a clear objective, ask a question to help it get back on track, such as, “What question are we trying to answer here?”

* The next time you want to offer feedback to a member of your team, start with a question: “How did that meeting go?”

As these practices become more frequent, we will see more greatness emerge in the form of more creative, innovative, and inclusive thinking. This will continue to translate into better solutions for clients, and measurable results in sales effectiveness, leadership, talent development, teamwork and inclusiveness.

What benefits could leading with questions unleash in your relationships, team or organization?

Karen Hutchison and Paul Wyman
Karen Hutchison and Paul Wyman are executive coaches at EY.