Overcome the Fear of Asking


I am amazed at how many leaders I’ve known who are willing to learn the art of being inquisitive; I am disappointed by those who refuse, often citing discomfort in asking anything.

When I dig deeper in our conversations, I find that those who are willing easily see the importance of bringing more “asking” into their leadership. Those who express discomfort fear that using more questions will signify that they’re weak leaders. Luckily, the vast majority of the leaders I know are willing to try incorporating more asking into their leadership.

If you are uncomfortable with the thought of being an asking leader, I fear for you. There are plenty of reasons why you need to bringing more asking into your way of leading. Some of the most important are:

  • Organizations are getting flatter, and leader-managers are taking on more and varied responsibilities. You can’t possibly know everything you need to know to lead others effectively. Asking helps you to develop knowledge about those things that are important to your leadership.
  • With continued globalization of our organizations, cultural differences require that we learn more about each other in order to do business together. One of the best ways to learn is to ask more questions of those who are different than you are.
  • When you ask, you invite others (give permission) for them to speak up. Your followers want — and need — to be heard. If you spend your days talking at them instead of listening to their answers, chances are they won’t feel valued. When they don’t feel valued, they don’t engage. Asking is a sign of your respect for them.

Some of the frequent opportunities to “ask” instead of tell that may come your way include the following:

  • When you’ve “inherited” a new team due to a reorganization or promotion. Spend time learning about them and what matters to them — as individuals and as a team. The best way to do this efficiently is ask questions such as “What gets you excited about our work?” or “What do we need to start, stop or continue doing?”
  • When you want your team to excel. Ask questions like “What areas can we get better at?” or “What will it look like when we are the best team in the company?”
  • When you need to have a tough conversation, questions can often diffuse emotions and engage the other person in their situation. Ask: “What do you think went well for you this quarter (or at the meeting, etc.),” and “What do you think you could have done better?” Your smartest followers will already know the answers to these questions.
  • When one of your staff needs to get into action, ask: “What’s the first step you can take?” or “If you were to begin to take action now, what would you do?”
  • When you need more input before you make a decision to move ahead, ask: “Can you provide me with your thoughts on this situation?” or “What am I missing in my thinking about this decision?”
  • When you have a conflict of opinion, ask: “I’d like to understand your position better; can you say more about your opinion?”

When I consider the importance of questions for good leadership, I often remember the saying that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Simple questions like the ones above are one way of showing that you care.


Reprinted with permission from SmartBlog on Leadership


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

4 comments on “Overcome the Fear of Asking

  1. Hi Mary Jo,
    Wonderful post. You have addressed a pesky problem that surprisingly lingers in leadership circles despite the evolution to a more inclusive style.

    I wonder how many more years the “all knowing — directive” leader syndrome will continue.

    Asking isn’t weak, listening doesn’t mean agreement, and inclusiveness doesn’t produce chaos.

    Great post.. I will share with my network.


  2. Thanks Kate. You’ve posed a very provacative question about how many more years the “all knowing” leader syndrome will continue. I won’t hazard a guess, but I think it might be longer than most of us would hope for!

  3. Hello Mary Jo,

    Thanks for a great post. Many of the worst mistakes I have seen happen in organizations come about because of that reticence leaders have about asking. Totally agree with you that leaders need to bring more asking into their leadership.

    “Not knowing” should become a philosophy of leadership. Then asking will be the norm!

    Warm regards,
    Dr. Ada

  4. Hi Dr. Ada,

    I like the idea of “not knowing” becoming a leadership philosophy. I’d also like to see “powerful questioning” become a leadership competency (along with “listening for understanding :)).

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