Jan U. Hagen, Zhike Lei, and Avner Shahal have written a short digital article for Harvard Business Review about their research on aircraft crews. Unsurprisingly, they find that captains who create psychologically safe environment, and who actively seek input from their crew members, tend to perform more effectively and make better decisions. Still, it's worth reading the piece as it does highlight some of the key ways that we can engage our teams effectively as leaders. For instance, they point out that the most effective aircraft captains use open-ended questions to solicit input from others. They summarized their findings as follows:
The captain’s style of communication had a major impact on crew performance in two major ways. First, crews performed consistently better under intense time pressure when the copilot was included in the decision making process than when the captain analyzed the problem alone and simply gave orders. Second, captains who asked open-ended questions — “How do you assess the situation?”; “What options do you see?”; “What do you suggest?” — came up with better solutions than captains who asked simple yes or no questions. By contrast, the latter method resulted in the copilot affirming the captain’s decision and proved worthless to problem evaluation and solving.
The takeaway we gathered here is that involving colleagues as equal decision partners by asking them questions — a form of leadership that organizational development scholar Ed Schein terms “humble inquiry” – taps into the other person’s expertise and aids constructive, factual information exchange. These questions are not simply for the sake of participation, but rather to gather information, opinions, and proposals for action. Teams who continuously exchanged information, analyzed the facts, evaluated options, made decisions, implemented them, and then reviewed what they had implemented, were the most successful in safely completing their flight simulations.
I think the importance of open-ended questions cannot be overstated. Too often, managers ask leading questions, or questions that constrain the way that their team members will tend to think about a problem or situation. The open-ended question often enables a leader to gather a broader range of perspectives and alternative solutions.