One of the enduring challenges of leadership is avoiding being persuaded that you have all the answers. When anxious employees seek certainty, it might feel like it’s your job to deliver. But numerous articles in this issue of MIT Sloan Management Review remind us how much more important it can be to ask questions.
Question the conventional wisdom: You could find that what “everybody knows” no longer holds true. That might be the case with one of the truisms of e-commerce: that the online purchase experience should be as free of friction as possible. Marco Bertini, Diego Aparicio, and Aylin Aydinli ask whether that makes sense in all circumstances — and suggest that the widespread practice of easing customers’ paths through the point of sale might actually be one of the culprits behind the high rate of returns for online purchases. They explain how introducing the right type of friction can slow buyers down and give them more time to evaluate their purchasing decisions — and increase their loyalty.
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Question the value you’re getting from routine spending, such as your investment in leadership training. Research by Hannes Leroy, Moran Anisman-Razin, and Jim Detert found a lack of educational rigor across numerous leadership development programs and a corresponding lack of meaningful outcomes. The onus is on companies buying these programs to ask themselves exactly what skills leaders need to develop in order to advance strategic priorities, and then ask more pointed questions of providers. If customers adopt more exacting criteria for selecting these programs, it might push providers to tighten their curricula and teaching methods, the authors argue.
Question your workforce about their views on the business and the employee experience. In researching the top 50 public corporations in Germany and their varying approaches to engaging with the employee representatives on their boards, Ayse Karaevli and Serden Özcan found that those that sought employee input on a wide range of topics did better at managing workforce disputes and gaining employee support for change. The authors point out that the company leaders who used more inclusive decision-making processes, gave employees strategic responsibilities, and identified mutual goals and interests avoided controversy and public conflict with their workforces. All of those strategies require leaders to not only ask questions but be prepared to listen well to the answers.
Question what you understand about others’ beliefs to establish dialogue on contentious issues. I’ve heard anecdotally that CEOs are concerned about the upcoming 2024 presidential election and the potential for divisiveness along ideological lines within the workplace. Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow aim to equip them with strategies and tactics for engaging respectfully with others on tough topics. In an article drawn from their recent book, Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, they offer a framework for having courageous conversations in the face of deep disagreement. Their approach to locating an appropriate entry point for dialogue can shift how we confront seemingly intractable differences. To prepare for such conversations, it is critical to research the opposing position with an open mind and to ask questions that might offer insight into the experiences, worldviews, and contexts that have formed people’s opinions. This wise advice can not only help leaders model civility for their teams but remind everyone that, often, good leadership begins with asking good questions.