Hal Gregersen: How Leaders Can Use Catalytic Questions To Create Vibrant Work Environments

Hal Gregersen has coined the phrase, “catalytic questions” to refer to the type of questions that reframe a situation and make it possible for a person or a team to move forward in new, more effective ways. It’s a concept that is incredibly intriguing and one I wanted to dive into during this conversation with Hal.

Hal is the creator of “Leadership and the Lens: Learning at the Intersection of Innovation and Image-Making,” a course which uses photography as a tool to teach students how to ask radically better questions – questions that can change their impact as leaders. Hal is one of the world’s most influential management thinkers (Thinkers50) and he is a keynote speaker, seminar leader, and transformational coach. He’s worked alongside leadership teams at Chanel, IBM, and the World Economic Forum, to name a few.

Join me for this fascinating conversation with Hal, on this episode of Masters of Leadership.

“Great leadership creates an environment where Inquiry leads to insight which leads to impact.” ~ Hal Gregersen

Hal believes that questions are often the answer to the challenges and obstacles that individuals and organizations face. His diverse experience as a consultant and leader himself have convinced him that when leaders can pave the way by asking better questions, their teams will uncover new ways to innovate, create, and make big things happen.

Notice the progression Hal emphasizes:

  • Inquiry (questions) lead to insight
  • Insight leads to impact

In this conversation Hal provides example after example of how this progression happens, telling anecdotes from his own experience that illustrate the truly life-changing power of catalytic questions.

Leaders need to be actively seeking passive data

We live in a time when AI and machine learning are able to capture and crunch data at a pace that is nothing short of overwhelming. When it comes to making use of the data available, leaders can easily find themselves staring at pages of information or a screen full of characters and not have a clue about where to begin to make effective use of it.

While Hal believes in using all the data at our disposal to make our organizations more effective, he’s also keenly interested in teaching leaders to search out passive data. What IS passive data? It’s the information that exists in our organizations, customer experiences, and other places that isn’t screaming for attention. Most importantly, it’s the data that provides insights that truly matter and oftentimes cut to the heart of problems or needs.

In this recorded conversation, Hal shares a handful of stories about how the leaders he’s worked with have gone on their own personal hunt for passive data and have benefited tremendously from the pursuit. You’ll hear stories involving Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, Walt Bettinger, and more.

Catalytic questions are not only for leaders. Teams need the skill as well

Naturally, the more a best practice can be applied in a wider range of situations, the more effective that practice will become. I was interested in Hal’s observations regarding the use of catalytic questions among teams, so I asked him how leaders can teach their teams about catalytic questions and encourage them to use them.

Naturally, leading by example is one of the huge ways leaders can help their teams see the power of asking the right questions. But Hal also shared some very practical approaches to implementing the use of questions in team environments. Listen to learn how you can build a powerful question-asking culture in your organization.

The reality of remote teams makes question asking even more challenging

The quick, choppy rhythm of digital communication has become the norm for many businesses. Emails, texts, Slack messages, and more contribute to lots of information exchange but often don’t effectively cut to the heart of more complicated or emotionally charged issues. Catalytic questions are indeed the answer to this issue. But how can we implement them effectively in remote teams?

Hal suggests that leaders strive to build a team culture where everyone understands the limits of digital communication when it comes to a deeper understanding of issues. He suggests leaders teach their teams to get eye to eye as often as possible, whether that’s via video or in-person meetings. Not only does this practice create an environment where catalytic questions can be asked, but it also enables those participating in the conversation to pick up on relevant pieces of data communicated through facial expression and body language that digital communication simply can’t provide.

Hal is a fount of wisdom when it comes to this issue of questions. I encourage you not only to listen to this conversation but also get your own copy of his new book, “Questions Are The Answer.

Outline of This Episode

  • [0:43] Hal Gregersen: A true leadership expert and guru, especially regarding questions
  • [1:44] How Hal views leadership after 30 years of research
  • [3:13] Advice for how leaders can make great use of overwhelming amounts of data
  • [6:33] Why Hal wanted to write a book about catalytic questioning
  • [11:37] How can leaders cultivate good questioning in their teams?
  • [16:30] What does it really mean to listen?
  • [20:45] The link between good questions and empathy and candor
  • [27:13] How do we ask catalytic questions in a remote work environment?

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