Several years ago, associate professor Will Felps ran a series of experiments to test the theory that a bad apple (in the employee sense) could ruin the bunch.
He sent an actor into meetings, one who would perform in a fashion that was detrimental to the group dynamic. The result was conclusive – the bad apple did, indeed, spoil the bunch.
But one meeting was an exception, with the group performing remarkably well. Felps, now associate head of the school of management at UNSW Business School, began to investigate the secret of that meeting's success. What he discovered was as simple as it was powerful.
"We looked closely at the one group that did well," Felps says. "Success was largely due to one person who was an amazing leader. He asked lots of open-ended questions to engage people and to distract others away from the bad apple.
"He was also very good at listening once he had asked a question. I found out later that he also happened to be the son of a diplomat. He was the good apple who saved the bunch."
The asking of questions, Felps surmised, was an effective and under-appreciated communication technique. In collaboration with Niels van Quaquebeke, a professor at Kühne Logistics University, he researched further and recently co-authored the paper, Respectful Inquiry: A motivational account of leading through asking open questions and listening.
Respectful inquiry, Felps says, involves asking questions in an open way then listening attentively to the response.
"These communication behaviours combine to signal the degree to which someone is encouraged to continue to share his/her thoughts on a subject during a conversation," he explains.
According to Felps, this communication method adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.
'We don't think that much about what's in the heads of other people. That takes practice'
– will felps
Competent and valued
It seems common sense that respectful inquiry would be of value to a business manager or leader. But is it? And if so, why isn't it taught in business schools?
Felps says questioning and attentive listening assists the business process on a number of levels. It helps to make better decisions, gain commitment and motivate staff.
"Respectful inquiry helps decision-making," Felps says. "It means you have more perspectives and you think through things more carefully in the process of talking to others and having others justify their views."
The commitment argument comes from the large amount of research that says people want to have a voice in decisions. Studies suggest that as long as people sense that their opinions have been heard, they will usually support the final decision, even if it goes against their original argument.
And how does the act of respectful inquiry motivate staff? It has to do with what the academic world refers to as self-determination theory.
"It's around the fact that respectful inquiry is very satisfying for people because it signals to them that you think they're competent, that they're valued members of the group, and that they have some autonomy," Felps says.
"In self-determination theory terms, we need these things in order to feel motivated. We want to feel we belong, we're relating to others and we have some freedom."
In the heads of other people
According to Felps, there are several blocks to a healthy level of questioning and listening by leaders of organisations. The first is simple egotism.
People tend to think about issues from their own perspective and, once they reach a senior level and have a certain amount of experience, tend to ask for the perspective of others less often. Research shows that a disproportionate number of leaders are narcissists, who tend to be poor perspective-takers.
"Narcissists want everyone to think, 'Look how smart she is'," Felps says. "But that is a tendency lots of us have. We don't think that much about what's in the heads of other people. That takes practice."
Another reason leaders don't engage in respectful inquiry is the old-school model of leadership – the idea that the job of a leader is to direct.
"People think that if they are a leader they need to constantly give direction," Felps says. "That is something that is being heavily challenged now. A lot of research points to the fact that it's not quite right. The best leaders combine advocacy and inquiry."
A third block is around 'threat rigidity', or the idea that when we are under stress we lose our will to explore. We no longer want to think and we simply desire a quick decision or solution. We long for 'cognitive closure'.
"Of course, this means that the time when respectful inquiry is most essential is also the time it is least likely to be utilised," Felps says.
These are not the only reasons that good questions are rarely asked by leaders. Other typical issues include deadline pressures, a lack of face-to-face time, geographical distance and cognitive overload.
These blocks are likely to be especially present for those without a lot of leadership experience.
"Newbies are likely to be feeling the need to 'act like a leader'. They are also likely to be overwhelmed both cognitively and with stress, and they're probably still sticking to their own ideas, egotistically. They'll be the least likely to engage in question-asking, when in fact they're probably the ones who need to the most," Felps says.
'The time when respectful inquiry is most essential is also the time it is least likely to be utilised'
– will felps
Conviction and humility
Felps recalls a story about Mike Abrashoff, the highly awarded former commander of the USS Benfold. Abrashoff turned personnel performance on his ship around by employing a new management technique that was less command-and-control and more commitment-and-cohesion.
One of Abrashoff's techniques was to make time to individually and regularly ask everybody on his ship three questions: What do you like best about working on this ship? What do you least like about working on this ship? If you could change one thing, what would it be?
In asking and listening, Abrashoff was able to see the ship from the point of view of its people and, at the same time, lead with both conviction and humility.
"For most people who are leaders, the natural instinct is not to engage in respectful inquiry," Felps says.
"However, with discipline, habit and practice, you can make it natural. When someone asks me a question, one of the things I will sometimes do is just ask, 'What do you think?'
"This has two benefits for me. One, I get to hear what they think. Two, they start taking some ownership over their opinions and become, in a way, a little bit less dependent on me and a little bit more autonomous. As an added bonus, it gives me time to think about my own answer."