Questions Motivate: Respectful Inquiry study explores the theory behind the leadership technique.

Niels Van Quaquebeke smiling

Bosses who ask questions have highly motivated employees. The work of Niels Van Quaquebeke from Kühne Logistics University (KLU) in Hamburg and Will Felps from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia supports this finding. And asking the right type of question is just as important as listening to the answer. The two academics coined the term Respectful Inquiry to describe the phenomenon.

In their study published in Academy of Management Review, Niels Van Quaquebeke, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at KLU, and Senior Lecturer Will Felps examine why managers who ask more questions can count on having committed employees. They have found that asking the right type of questions triggers a whole series of positive effects.

“Asking questions is not only a technique for finding out information,” explained Van Quaquebeke. Actually, questions help to satisfy three basic psychological needs at once. “With the right questions, I promote the relationship with my partner in conversation. And I let them know that I think they are qualified to give me an answer. Finally, I grant them autonomy by allowing them to decide on the formulation and focus of their answer. When these three needs are satisfied, employee satisfaction and motivation increase. And with this, their commitment.”

What is the right question to ask?

To achieve these results, bosses must ask the right type of question. The more open the question, the stronger the effect. “Yes/no questions have never motivated anyone,” said Van Quaquebeke. The people answering should have the opportunity to determine their own focuses in their answers. And not have the feeling that the person asking the question is looking for the one “right” answer. “For example, ask questions like 'How do you think things are going in project A',” he explained. “Or: 'What is your opinion on B?”Listening attentively to the answer is at least as important as asking the question – even if you've only asked how the other person is doing. “If I ask a question and then immediately start checking my smartphone or get ready to leave, I signal that I am not particularly interested in the answer,” Van Quaquebeke added. This cancels out the question’s positive effect. Or yields a negative effect. The two academics have coined the term Respectful Inquiry to describe the combination of open questioning and attentive listening.

Where does Respectful Inquiry take place?

Whether in meetings or in the hallway – managers spend up to 80% of their time communicating. “If they only ask a few open questions and listen to their employees attentively in the process, they can still achieve a lot,” said Van Quaquebeke confidently. “This type of everyday communication is much more effective than spouting on at length or giving curt instructions.” However, Respectful Inquiry demands a certain level of humility on the part of the boss. Today's managers must admit that they no longer know everything and simply cannot be expected to have an answer to every question. Bosses who actively involve their employees have a clear advantage. “Sectors and companies with highly developed cultures of control can learn something here,” said Van Quaquebeke. “If they can change to the point where they give Respectful Inquiry a try, they will benefit greatly from it.”

When is the right time to ask questions?

In their study, Van Quaquebeke and Felps examined situations in which Respectful Inquiry was particularly useful. And discover situations that they call “ironic contexts” – because managers often neglect to ask questions when they need to the most.The boss sets up a schedule with tight deadlines, the project’s tasks are highly complex or the physical distance between the managers and employees is great – these are examples of ironic contexts. “In these types of situations, employee performance is especially dependent on personal motivation,” explained Van Quaquebeke. “The boss is busy coordinating the work to meet the deadlines or worrying about highly complex processes.” Or is not even there because his/her office is in a different building, city – or even on another continent. Here, Respectful Inquiry is what it takes to increase employee motivation. “Most bosses tend to give brief, concise instructions instead of asking their employees questions in these situations,” said Van Quaquebeke. “And miss the opportunity to develop their employees into independent top performers.” The study revealed a further paradox: When bosses do ask questions, they usually ask the employees who are highly motivated anyway. After all, they give more palatable answers. Respectful Inquiry has a greater impact on the employees whose motivation is lower.

Why is Respectful Inquiry so powerful?

Countless management manuals contain the tip to ask questions when you want to motivate your employees. With their Respectful Inquiry study, Van Quaquebeke and Felps deliver an explanation of why it is such a powerful tool based on scientific theory for the first time. Their work has its roots in self-determination theory (SDT), which assumes that people all have the same basic psychological needs and always act to satisfy them. They are: autonomy (the desire to make one's own decisions), competence (the need to master appropriate tasks) and relatedness (the wish to belong). The greater the level of support people find for meeting these needs within their social context, the higher their satisfaction – and satisfied people develop more autonomous motivation. In a professional environment, this means that employees whose needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are satisfied go beyond the minimum. These employees approach their tasks with enthusiasm, show more commitment, and suggest useful changes.

The study Respectful Inquiry: A motivational account of leading through asking questions and listening is available for viewing in the “In-press” section of Academy of Management Review, one of the top five most influential and frequently cited journals of management and business.