Leadership 101: Increase your Influence with Critical Questions

Boss looking over glassesAs a staff member on the organizational chart, many EHS Pros don’t ask critical questions of line staff at decisive moments.  This is a missed opportunity to be influential during key decision making processes. By not constructively challenging the status-quo our agenda becomes secondary to those of other more assertive leaders.  It is critical that we get better at asking critical questions.

Critical questions are an element in the leadership activity of critical thinking.  A concise definition of critical thinking is:

“Reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do”.  -Robert H. Ennis

Logical questions are formulated, asked and answered that lead to an economical increase in the multi-faceted understanding of the issue being discussed.  The technique addresses the fact that all human understanding is from a limited viewpoint and unknowns may have a significant affect on the outcome of the issue.   I ran across the credo below and thought it a good description of the assumptions of critical thinking.

A Critical Thinker’s Credo

    • I admit that I see the world from a highly limited viewpoint.
    • Before I offer an argument, I consider the best case against my argument.
    • I take stands.
    • To correct errors (my intent), I must sometimes make them.
    • I justify an argument by whether it meets certain explicit reasonable standards.
    • I distinguish the quality of an argument from both the worth of the person giving the argument and from the merit of the conclusion. 

Source: Indiana University Southeast: critical_thinking_handout_fall_ 02.pdf

There are several steps to using the critical questioning technique effectively.  These are:

Be a good listener.  You have to understand what is being discussed first.  Avoid jumping to conclusions after hearing the first words out of the other person’s mouth. Practice active listening which involves the listener re-stating the speakers key points to confirm to both that the message was understood.

Formulate concise open-ended questions that yield contrasting perspectives on the issue.  Your goal is the develop an adequate understanding of the issues and concepts the speaker is describing.  formulate brief questions on specific points that elicit focuses responses.  You are striving for a back and fourth discussion where knowledge is obtained in packets that your thought process can quick analyze and apply.  The chart below shows that a few general lines of thought can be used to tailor questions to specific elements of the discussion.  Keep a quiet mind while the other person is speaking; focus on their message not your inner dialogue.  Pauses in conversation while you think about what has been said is okay.

Analytic Questions Derived from the Elements of Thought. Source: The Miniature Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions.


Thoughtfully consider the answer and ask a follow up questions until you feel you thoroughly understand the issue and feel reasonably confident you can predict the consequences.  Keep in mind the saying that “perfection is the enemy of completion”. You will have to make a judgement call with less than full information most of the time. In business time is money so sparingly ask meaningful questions that further your complete understanding of the issue.

For an interesting discussion on the principles of critical questions, see The Miniature Guide to the Art of Asking Essential Questions, by Elder and Paul.

Early in my career I noticed that the senior leaders in the company I worked for had the knack of asking the right question at the right time.  They had the uncanny ability to cut to the heart of the issue at hand and ask the questions that mattered most in making the right decision.  It frequently derailed me because I was not ready to answer that penetrating question on the fly.  Now that I have years under my belt I understand how they were able to do this; It is experience in making decisions.  They have learned through trial and error where the likely pitfalls are and want to understand the risk around those traps.  They are also gauging the subordinate’s understanding of the situation and confidence in the answer.

To be consistently successful in front of senior leaders, think through these types of questions and rehearse the answers.  It will give you confidence and credibility, both traits the leader needs to see to place his/her faith in your capabilities.


About Leadership 101

In posts with this phrase in the title, I am documenting key skills that experience has taught me are necessary to succeed. These are the principles of leading organizations to EHS success. They are, in most cases, applicable to the other functions of the organization as well. Early to mid-career professionals will increase their level of success by developing the skills and techniques identified in Leadership 101.  For us old dogs, these are reminders of the skills that got us here…

About Chet Brandon

I am a highly experienced Health, Safety and Environmental Professional for Fortune 500 Companies. I love the challenge of ensuring HSE excellence in process, manufacturing and other heavy industry settings. The connection of EHS to Sustainability is a fascinating subject for me. I believe that the future of industrial organizations depends on the adoption of sustainable practices.
This entry was posted in Business Accumen, Leadership, Leadership 101, Serial Post. Bookmark the permalink.

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