The Power of the Open-Ended Question for Business Leaders

A 2016 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers revealed the most important skills employers look for in potential employees. Leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving are in the top five of skills desired. These attributes make sense, employers and leaders want team members who can think outside of the box and lead from wherever they are.

Open ended questions create opportunities for team members to take the initiative and think through business problems, engage them in active learning and problem-solving, and cause higher-order reasoning such as analysis and evaluation of complex situations. Well-thought-out open ended questions lead a team to a more innovative process and strengthen an employee-manager relationship.

Is there an art to asking useful questions, especially open-ended ones? What is the impact of intelligent and strategic questions that push company teams in the right direction?

An open-ended question is a question that cannot only be answered with a “yes” or “no” and it creates value for the person asking it and the individual who is designated to answer. Open ended questions like:

  • “How do you feel this process has been improved?” or,
  • “What do you think is behind the current increase/decrease in sales trends?”

require both parties to think strategically and acknowledge the deeper meaning behind issues that need to be addressed.

These questions show that both parties are actively engaged in a solution. A detailed question has to be backed by data just as much as the explanation needed for it. So, leaders and employees in the position to ask are already participating in strategy and research.

part 1

The Advantages of Asking Open-Ended Questions

Questions that go beyond binary answers have the following benefits:

  • Deeper insights

    A simple “yes” or “no” answer prevents people from explaining their position further. Open ended questions allow individual to go into detail about what they think, giving everyone an opportunity to see the issue from another perspective.

  • Creativity

    Questions that use “what,” “why,” and “how,” allow team members to dig deeper and come up with innovative ways to think about and solve a problem. Marketers can examine trends that have led to a sales slump, HR professionals can explore ways to increase employee satisfaction, and finance managers can collaborate to get to the bottom of investment issues.

  • There is no shortage of answers

    If teams are interested in having a brainstorming session, open ended questions can get the process started. One open question can yield numerous answers, which is favorable for exploring various methods to answering the question or solving the problem.

  • Leaders can learn about how people think

    To lead a team or solve a problem; it is essential for business leaders to know how the people around them think or come to solutions. Open ended questions get to the heart of this and allow leaders to see people work through problems and analyze situations. This facilitates and strengthens team development.

  • Creating a more balanced viewpoint

    Everyone might not be on board with a process change or new endeavor. These types of questions can inform leaders about negative points to watch out for, and create a more balanced viewpoint. It can also help leaders directly address those who might be nervous about a particular idea and in turn acknowledge their concerns and questions.

part 2

Best Practices: Open-ended Questions

  1. Make Open-Ended Questions Part of the Company Culture

    The Harvard Business Review had an excellent tip for facilitating better questions. One way is for leaders and managers to encourage people who directly report to them to feel free to ask them detailed questions during performance appraisals. They can also foster this culture by having an open-door policy where employees can ask questions as they come up. This makes open-ended questions in planning meetings easier for people to feel comfortable participating in.

  2. It’s All About Phrasing

    The magic words for open questions are “what,” “why, and “how.” Each one gets to deeper answers and beliefs. To drive home how these words can be used in different settings to receive a variety of answers, Forbes listed various ways “how” can be used. For example, starting a question with “How likely,” looks for details about the future, while “How can,” is aspirational. Therefore, it is important for leaders to see how certain word combinations can potentially yield specific answers.

  3. Decide on The Ultimate Goal of Each Question

    Business leaders need to decide the impact of each question they ask. It is impossible to predict responses, but open-ended questions should have an end goal. There should be a strategy and design for the questions selected.

  4. Keep Track of Questions That Work

    Leaders would do well to track the response to specific questions. If an inquiry started a meaningful conversation that led to a new marketing strategy or a more efficient process than it should be noted why the question performed as well as it did. Leaders can then be sure to create more questions with a similar composition. On the other hand, it is also critical to record questions that did not go over well and failed to get to the intended goal.

According to a study conducted by Ragan, 90 percent of respondents admitted to multitasking during meetings, while executives considered 67 percent of meetings to be failures. Most of this is due to a lack of employee engagement and a failure to keep employees active in the conversation. Well-designed open-ended questions can decrease these statistics for the better since they move beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer and promote strategic planning. Everyone wins when leaders make detailed responses a priority. The employee feels heard, and upper management can receive ideas from people who know the company the best, its workers.

  7 Steps to Create the Best Value Proposition [How-To’s and Best Practices]