Upside Down: How to Change Behavior Through Questions Rather than Commands

Many of my clients are successful professionals. They have good clients, make good money, and enjoy their jobs. The challenge is getting them to recognize that they could be even better at what they do.

Just because someone is successful doesn’t mean that everything he or she does is effective (that’s why I don’t bother to read articles by celebrities on diet and exercise, or how to make marriage last…!). Many of our management practices, to quote my friend and CEO coach Marshall Goldsmith, are “superstitions.” That is, even though they are second rate habits, over time we have associated them—erroneously—with positive outcomes. We write proposals or run first meetings with prospects a certain way, and we naturally associate those techniques with our success. But it’s correlation not causation. That is: Many things we do work well, some things don’t actually work that well, but we don’t realize it because overall we are successful.


So how do you get highly successful people to recognize the need to change their average but ingrained behaviors that they believe have served them so well?

Here’s a simple idea: Use questions rather than trying to tell them what to do. The reason questions work well was identified by Ben Franklin 250 years ago. He said, “Men are best convinced by ideas that they arrive at on their own.” How true.

The right questions help engage and motivate the other person, and lead them to the right answer. Ideally, they will feel the idea was theirs, not yours.

Here are some suggestions for the types of questions that will help you change and improve others’ behaviors as a leader or coach:

Ask self-assessment questions

People love to self-assess, and it can help them recognize the need for change. For example:

  • “In terms of achieving your objectives and advancing the sales process, how would you rate that meeting on a scale of 1-5, where 1=poor, 3=average, and 5=outstanding?” and follow up with, “Why did you give it that rating?” and “What would you change about it if you could do it over?”

Ask why questions:

  • “Why do you think your client did that?”
  • “Why are we writing a proposal now?”
  • “Why is this important?”

Turn directives or statements into questions:

  • Instead of saying, “You need to prepare more,” ask “How did feel about your preparation for that session?” and “In retrospect, is there anything you think you should have done differently, in terms of the way you prepared?”
  • Instead of saying, “I don’t think your team is collaborating very well on this account,” simply ask “How do you feel about the degree of collaboration within your team?”

Ask challenge questions:

  • “Is this the best you can do?” or “Do you feel this represented our best work/best effort?”
  • “Sounds like you wish that had gone better. Is there a better approach? Is anything holding you back from trying something different?”
  • “I know the client doesn’t want to consider this until the summer, but is there anything that would increase their sense of urgency? What could accelerate this?”

When working with experienced managers, it’s especially important to use questions to motivate and engage. You will most certainly provoke more positive change than if you simply tell people what they are doing wrong and how you want them to fix it.

Telling people what to do makes you look smart. Asking them thoughtful questions that help them discover the answer makes them look smart.



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