Asking questions can reduce your credibility as a leader - but it’s worth it

Research shows that an openness to learn has a massive impact on the way you’re perceived.

by Lauren Brown
Last Updated: 17 Mar 2020

When considering what makes a good leader, many managers jump straight to resolute characteristics like decision-making and assuredness. 

However a new study has suggested that actually, contrary to widespread belief, managers are seen as being more credible when they are inquisitive. 

Researchers at the University of Surrey found that after surveying  281 managers, only 29 percent asked questions as often as they could. 

Most said asking questions was a great way of eliciting trust, but believed it had a negative impact on perceptions of their competence. 

”The appearance of competence may appear so important that it overshadows other critical factors of a leader’s success such as trust, cooperation from employees, etc,” says co-author Natalia Karelaia

“It is not surprising, then, that leaders are wary of asking questions.” 

Researchers went on to test whether this concern around credibility was well-founded in four more studies, by asking participants to read different versions of scenarios depicting their boss asking questions, delivering conclusions or admitting that they didn’t know something. They then rated the boss’s perceived competence, humility and trustworthiness as well as their own inclination to help the boss in the given scenario. 

The study found that hypothetical leaders whose competence was already in question - either because they were new in the role or were perceived to be in possession of insufficient qualifications - did incur a moderate “competence penalty” for asking questions. However this penalty was much lower if a leader openly admitted ignorance, and was largely counterbalanced by a surge in perceived humility. 

Researchers credit this discrepancy between perceived ignorance and inquisitiveness to what they call “relational humility,” a way of “reframing knowledge gaps” as “curiosity signals.” 

This is because it elevates others rather than lowering oneself, showing an appreciation of other peoples’ strengths and a humble willingness to learn from them. 

“For leaders,” Karelaia explains, “greater relational humility is associated with increased leader effectiveness and translates into increased employee engagement and performance,” contradicting “the common assumption that the relationship-building benefits of asking questions will always be nullified by a decline in perceived competence.

“Leaders should not let concerns about seeming less competent prevent them from asking questions.”

While the effect works best for leaders well established in their roles, the “When in doubt, ask questions” rule of thumb  holds true for less secure leaders too, maintains Karelaia.

“Any moderate competence penalties they may suffer are likely to be balanced out by an increase in the quality of their working relationships.”

Image credit: Chris Hondros / Staff via Getty Images

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