6 Questions that Will Set You Up to Be Super Successful

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

July 20, 2015

by Marshall Goldsmith

A Little Background

When it comes to self-reflection, asking yourself active questions rather than passive questions changes the focus of your answers – and empowers you to make changes you wouldn’t otherwise consider!

I learned about active questions from my daughter, Kelly Goldsmith. Kelly has a Ph.D. in behavioral marketing and teaches at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Yes, I am a proud father!

Kelly and I were discussing one of the mysteries of my field – why is there such a poor return from American companies’ $10B investment in training programs to boost employee engagement.

Part of the problem, my daughter patiently explained, is that despite the massive spending on training, companies may end up doing things that stifle rather than promote engagement. It starts with how companies ask questions about employee engagement. The standard practice in almost all organizational survey son the subject is to rely on what Kelly calls passive questions—questions that describe a static condition. “Do you have clear goals?” is an example of a passive question. It’s passive because it can cause people to think of what is being done to them rather than what they are doing for themselves.

Passive questions almost invariably lead to an “environmental” answer. Thus, if employees answer “no” when asked, “Do you have clear goals?” they attribute the reasons for this answer to external factors, such as “Our managers are indecisive” or “The company changes strategy every month.” Answering such questions, employees seldom look within to take responsibility for their own goal-setting.

Companies then invariably take the next natural step and ask for suggestions about making changes. Again, employees answer focusing on the environment (or outside). For instance, “Managers need to be trained in goal setting” or “Our executives need to be more effective in communicating our vision” are typical responses.

There is nothing inherently bad about asking passive questions. They can be a very useful tool for helping companies know what they can do to improve. On the other hand, they can produce a very negative unintended consequence. When asked exclusively, passive questions can become the natural enemy of taking personal responsibility and demonstrating accountability. They can give people permission to “pass the buck” to anyone and anything but themselves!

So, what’s the alternative?

Active questions are the alternative to passive questions. There is a huge difference between “Do you have clear goals?” and “Did you do your best to set clear goals for yourself?” The former is trying to determine the employee’s state of mind; the latter challenges the employee to describe or defend a course of action.

As I talked about in my last blog, I challenge myself every day by answering 32 questions that represent behavior that I know is important, but that is easy for me to neglect given the pressures of daily life. (I would be happy to send you my questions and an article about the process. Just email me at marshall@marshallgoldsmith.com!)

Here They Are: The Six Questions that Will Set You Up to Be Super Successful!

Since my conversation with Kelly, I’ve changed my first six questions to active questions. This seemingly slight change has been dramatic! It has helped me alter my behavior for the better in such a dramatic way that I now teach all of my clients and students this method of self-reflection for positive behavioral change. My six active questions are:

1. Did I do my best to increase my happiness?
2. Did I do my best to find meaning?
3. Did I do my best to be engaged?
4. Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
5. Did I do my best to set clear goals?
6. Did I do my best to make progress toward goal achievement?

My challenge to you? Try it for yourself and see! If you like, try this for 2 weeks and then send me a quick note and let me know how it is working for you. I can’t wait to hear from you!