3 min

When You’re The Boss, Questions Are Better Than Orders

When You’re The Boss, Questions Are Better Than Orders

I love being a movie producer, I love having great colleagues, and I love having a production company, which I run with Ron Howard.

As part of all that, I’m a boss. What I don’t love, in fact, is being a boss, because I don’t love bossing people, I don’t really want to tell people what to do.

So I often manage people with curiosity — by asking questions instead of giving orders. As I told Harvard Business Review, I think questions are the most under-used management tool we’ve got.

Questions are an especially great management tool when I think someone isn’t doing what I would hope they would, or when I think something isn’t going in the direction I want it to go.

People often imagine that if there’s going to be conflict, they need to start with a firm hand, they need to remind people of the chain of command.

I’m never worried about who is in charge.

I’m worried about making sure we get the best possible decision, the best possible casting, script, movie trailer, financing deal — the best possible movie.

I’m worried about making sure everyone on a high-risk project has the same goal.

Asking questions at work elicits information, of course.

Asking questions creates a space for people to raise issues they are worried about, or to give the boss information he or she might not know, and might not be expecting.

Most important, asking questions gives people the chance to make the case for the way they want a decision to go. And vice-versa.

Back in 1991, we shot the movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise. Tom was at the top of his career. He was only twenty-nine years old, but he had already made Top GunThe Color of MoneyRain Man, and Born on the Fourth of July.

Tom isn’t difficult to work with. But Far and Away was a challenging movie to make. It was an old-fashioned epic, a story of two immigrants leaving Ireland for America at the turn of the last century. We shot in Ireland and the western United States. It got expensive, but the movie wasn’t overtly commercial. When we figured out what it was going to cost, the studio told me to find ways of cutting the budget.

I flew to Ireland, and I went to Tom on the set. “Look, you’re not the producer of this movie,” I said. “But we all want to make it, we all have this vision of a movie we’re doing as artists, a story we care about. It’s going to be expensive, but we can’t spend as much money as it looks like we’re going to. We need to hold the line.”

I said to Tom, “Can you be the team leader here with the cast and crew? Can you be the guy that sets an example?”

He looked at me. “I’m one hundred percent that guy!” he said. “When I have to go to the bathroom, I’m going to run to the trailer and run back to the set. I’m going to set the pace for excellence, and respect, and tightening up.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He led. He was motivated. He motivated other people. We did make a really good movie, and we kept the budget under control.

I didn’t walk in and tell Tom what to do. I didn’t order everybody to work harder, to make do with less. I explained where we were. And I went to the key player, the person other people would respect, and I asked that a question: “Can you be the leader here?”

That’s something that asking questions does that is so vital:

It helps create a team, especially under trying circumstances. Curiosity — asking questions — helps create trust.

I think asking for people’s help — rather than directing it — is almost always the smart way of doing things, regardless of the stakes. It creates engagement rather than resistance.

And, as I explained in a story for Fast Company magazine this month, asking questions creates a completely different kind of culture at work.

Asking questions confers responsibility. Asking questions implies that the person you’re talking to has both the authority to come up with the ideas, the answers, the solutions — and some of the responsibility to do so as well.

Curiosity as a boss, curiosity at work, isn’t a matter of style. It’s much more important than that. If you’re a boss, and you manage by asking questions, you’re laying a foundation for the culture of your company or your group.

You’re letting people know the boss is willing to listen — even to information that’s unpleasant or unexpected.

You’re letting people know you value a diversity of perspectives — and that you appreciate that in the modern world of high-speed commerce, there may be more than one “right” answer to a work problem or a product problem, and that a diversity of views is the way to find those answers

Questions at work — delivered not like a prosecutor on a cross-exam, of course, but with a genuine spirit of humility and a desire to learn — are an apparently simple tool that changes the whole dynamic with the people you work with, and the results you get.

But you do have to listen to the answers.


Authors: Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman

Brian Grazer is the Oscar-winning producer of such movies and TV shows as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, 8 Mile, Arrested Development, and Empire. Charles Fishman (cnfish@mindspring.com) is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author of The Big Thirst and The Wal-Mart Effect.

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