Leading With Questions Rather Than Answers

Professor Adrian Donato EdD ’16 discusses why leaders must frame goals around the ‘why.’

By Adrian Donato EdD ’16
Assistant Professor of Education

(Illustration/Chris Gash)

Leading any organization, whether governmental, nonprofit or for-profit, is really about leading people to adopt new behaviors in response to challenges that arise. Getting from the current state to the ideal state is ultimately the goal of every problem we face. However, when people do not know the ideal state they are working toward, they will not discover what attitudes and behaviors to adopt in order to get there. Rather than jumping to a quick solution for problem resolution, leaders first must ask if the goal is framed to lead from the “Why?”

Not only does the goal need to take into account the stakeholders most essential to implementing the changes needed to reach the ideal state, it also needs to be framed and defined in a way that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely while determining who will do what, by when and to what degree for ongoing evaluation and review. This process involves collaborating with others, promoting transparency, challenging existing assumptions, encouraging dissent, promoting curiosity and—most controversial to some—reframing existing but misdirected goals. After setting and framing the goal properly, the leader can then determine how best to strengthen and empower those who will help the organization reach the goal.

Leaders must first determine what their stakeholders actually know: Do they know the facts and strategies necessary to achieve the given goal? Do they know what procedures to follow? Once new behaviors are adopted, are stakeholders improving on their behaviors in new and novel ways as they plan their approach and monitor their own progress toward goal achievement? Unfortunately, leaders tend to assume there are knowledge deficiencies and resort to expensive trainings. However, it could very well be that stakeholders possess the skill but not the will to engage in goal-directed behaviors.

It is critical that leaders observe stakeholders to understand what motivates them and what might be hindering their motivation to adopt new behaviors. Leaders must ask: Do stakeholders value the changes needed to reach the goal? Are they able to see how the changes relate to their own interests, usefulness, benefit and/or importance? Do they have an adequate level of confidence to perform new behaviors, and will they be supported through on-the-job instruction, practice and feedback? Addressing these motivation factors is generally the cheapest solution to jump-start the goal-directed behavior of stakeholders. Leaders tend to assume a correlation between motivation and money—“If we pay them more, they will do better”—but this is generally not the case.

Leaders also must examine the organization’s beliefs and habits that support or prevent stakeholders’ adoption of goal-directed behaviors. An organization is inert until people give it life. Collectively held attitudes and beliefs such as lack of trust, helplessness, hopelessness, fear of failure, social loafing and unwillingness to change manifest in workplaces marred by unclear goals, prejudicial feedback, lack of autonomy, ineffective communication and misaligned workloads. Unfortunately, organizational leaders tend to assume that altering a policy, a procedure or a budgetary item line will alter people, but people are much more complex.

“What are the right answers for implementation?” should be the last question, not the first. Leaders need to discover these answers in two ways: through a survey of peer-reviewed literature aligned to the goal and through qualitative evidence obtained from internal interviews, observations, document analysis and/or surveys. Though it may seem slow and tedious to lead with questions rather than answers, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As people are different and goals are different, every package of solutions will also be different.

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2021 issue as “Leading With Questions Rather Than Answers.”