Better questions = better answers … How a “Socratic” approach to leading and learning enables more critical thinking, and better action

July 2, 2019

Critical thinking will be the number one skill for business in the 21st century (according to the World Economic Forum, Harvard Business School and The Institute for the Future).

Being intensely curious about our changing world, being open minded to explore new possibilities and alternatives, being thoughtful about what the real question is before jumping to the answer .

These are the skills that will enable leaders to move organisations forwards, to think without blinkers or prejudice, to find new opportunities and solutions in an world that is not like it used to be, and to engage others in a collective discussion and ultimately vision of where to go, and what to do.

You could call it a more “Socratic” approach to leadership.

And more generally demanding a more “Socratic” approach to personal development, and executive education, that develops a new generation of leaders to move forwards in new ways.

What is a socratic approach?

We’re familiar with the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He holds the key to an essential leadership skill: ask great questions.

The Socratic Method is about asking, and answering, questions collectively.

The challenge is that too few leaders, managers and employees ask great questions. This is a big problem.  We look up to our bosses and ask them for the answers. Which means we get lazy at thinking ourselves. Equally as we strive to be that boss, we think we need all the answers too.

Wrong. The best leaders ask questions.

Cultures that embrace a culture of questioning thrive and those that fear it either fail or are doomed to mediocrity.

Better questions lead to better answers.

So how to nurture this Socratic culture? There are 7 basics ingredients to it:

1. Search for better answers

“Remember that your goal is to find the best answer, not to give the best one you have” said Ray Dalio.

Ray Dalio founded Bridgewater, one of the best performing hedge funds in the world. His firm is guided by a set of principles and at the core of those principles is an intense commitment to asking great questions. From how he recruits, to the day to day management, there is a 360 degree culture of asking thought provoking questions.

The key to having a team embrace questioning is see it as a quest for the best answer versus an interrogation. If it is a quest, then everyone has a role to play and different insights to bring to the table. If it feels like an interrogation morale will drop and defensive attitudes will stifle the ability to find the best answer.

2. It’s ok to say you don’t know the answer

You need to check your ego at the door when you go to work. It gets in the way of finding the best answers. Once your ego is checked, you can be humble and admit when you do not know the answer. This returns us to the questing path. If a team member is missing an answer, then the next question to put forth should help them find it. This eliminates any excuses and sets everyone right back on the path to finding the best possible answers.

The sooner we admit we do not have the answer at hand, the sooner we put our energies towards finding the answer.

3. Thrive on questioning, debating, exploring

Most people can handle a few questions before they experience cognitive overload. In other words, their brain freezes and they experience emotional fatigue. Too many questions with too few answers kicks in the flight response. People can shut down. The good news is that people can build up their stamina so that they can handle more questions.

The best way to do this is the work the brain out like a muscle. Think of it as the same as any gym work out. Engage. Rest. Recover. You will get stronger and better at asking questions and engaging in the quest for answers.

4. Encourage your team to ask more questions

Want to unleash the potential of your team? Yes? Then you will have to ask questions and be up for questing for the best answers.

Art Gensler is the founder of the largest design firm in the world. How is he was able to control management at such a large scale?  He doesn’t. He applies the power of guiding principles. And he does this through a culture of questions. With so many different sectors, geographies and managers, he says that he encourages people to ask questions. Gensler wants their teams to be curious and to find the best possible answers for their clients. And when you meet Art, you will see that he almost always opens a conversation with a question.

5. Think harder, explore further

If you want good answers, you need to concentrate on getting them. Our brains are splintered by multitasking.  Stanford Professor Clifford Nass’s research showcases how multitasking both reduces the speed of decision making as well as the quality of the decisions generated.

Instead, what you want to engage in is what Nobel Laureate Economist Daniel Kahneman calls Systems 2 thinking; which is slow, deliberative and logical.  It helps you clear through the rapid, automatic and subconscious default settings that often guide us and pushes us further to get at well thought out decisions.

By both concentrating and engaging in a deeper level of thought, you dramatically increase the prospects of making good decisions.

6. The 3 Ps

The three Ps are: possibilities, probabilities and priorities. These three are sequentially linked. Apply different questions to the different categories. Certain questions generate possibilities. Other questions sharpen the team’s ability to assess the probable outcome of potential decisions. The third set of questions help empower team members to prioritize. While Socrates engaged in philosophical dialogues over long periods of time, you have a venture to run. And that means taking action. Learn to apply different questions to the three P’s; it will help advance your endeavor.

7. Know yourself

Having a Socratic culture is great. It also means everyone should embrace the Socratic ideal to “Know Thyself.”

Before tossing questions in every direction, make sure to ask youself questions first. Get great at thinking through issues. This way you can ask quality questions. It also shows respect to everyone on the team. It demonstrates that you value their time, input and energy because you cared enough to think through the issue at hand prior to enlisting them in a specific quest.

To explore this theme further, you can engage Peter Fisk as a keynote speaker, for consulting workshops, or for executive development. Email


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