In yesterday's blog post, I discussed the way you frame a question has a significant influence on whether others will reveal problems, risks, and bad news to you as a leader. In this blog post, I would like to expand on the topic of asking the leading question.
We often find ourselves asking leading questions without even being fully aware of our behavior. We do not recognize how our mental models and assumptions have shaped our inquiries in ways that may influence the way people respond to us.
Years ago, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studied the issue of leading questions. She found that small changes in the way that we phrase a question can matter a great deal (similar to the research cited in yesterday's blog post). For instance, she showed research subjects the video of a car accident in one study. For some individuals, she asked them how fast the car was traveling when it drove through a stop sign. Fo others, she simply asked them about the car's speed when turning right, without mentioning the stop sign. Later, not surprisingly, when asked if they had seen the stop sign, more people responded affirmatively if the question referred to the road sign. Loftus describes the inclusion of the stop sign as a "presupposition" - “a condition that must hold in order for the question to be contextually appropriate.”
In a later experiment, Loftus examined the impact of including false presuppositions in our questions. After showing research subjects a video of another car accident, she asked some of them, “How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?” She posed others a similar question, but without mentioning the barn at all. The barn actually never appears in the video. Later, she asked all the research subjects if they had seen the barn in the video. Sure enough, many individuals in the first group reported spotting the barn - they were led to believe it existed by the phrasing of the question posed to them.
Do managers include presuppositions in their questions? Sure, we all do at times. Consider the question, “How much will market share rise if we increase our advertising spending?” This question presumes that more advertising spending will increase sales, and more so for the manager's firm than for competitors. What if the advertising drives primary demand, increasing sales for the entire prodcut category (but therefore, not improving market share)? What if competitors respond/match the spending hike, and therefore, it has no effect on market share at all? The words "how much" at the start of the question may distort the responses that one receives.
[This post summarizes the discussion of leading questions in my book, Know What You Don't Know.]