The Art of Asking Questions

Simon Black – 

An important aspect of leadership is the ability to seek out god knowledge by asking the right questions at the right time. This is so important that we could suggest that “Good leadership is about asking the right questions” (Black, Groombridge & Jones 2011)

The problem with asking questions is that people can view questioning in different ways. Some people might consider your questions to be  a threat or a way of apportioning blame if things have gone wrong. For others, questions may be viewed as an indicator of your interest in their work. On other occasions questioning may seem like a test of knowledge for the person you are approaching. In the best situation people will view your questions as your attempt to offer help and to collaborate and support their work.

As a leader, your use of questions might relate to one or more of these purposes. The issue is, how can we best use questions to build helpful knowledge?

Let’s first get rid of some misconceptions. The following types of questions are generally inappropriate and are rarely helpful to anyone, including you. To put it bluntly, these are the sort of questions that you should AVOID:

  • Asking why someone has messed up
  • Asking why people ‘don’t know’
  • Asking something which is focused on a person’s appearance
  • Asking something personal which is none of your business
  • Asking something in an accusatory or derogatory manner
  • Asking questions to make you look clever or to put people down

Instead, better questioning starts with being clear on the point of your questions. A few useful purposes for effective questioning include:

  • Investigating a problem (e.g. when some sort of failure occurs)
  • Testing people’s understanding (e.g. of a technique or method)
  • Clarifying if people have understood what you said 
  • Checking a person’s well-being (if they do not seem their usual self)
  • Asking how to do and activity better (to get better performance )
  • Asking what could prevent problems reoccurring (after a mistake)

As a conservation leader, the trick to asking good questions is this:


In work, most problems and unknowns are NOT due to people being neglectful or incompetent, but are actually down to the system of work (namely, rules and obligations, procedures, the environment, complex social and natural systems) that people work within. In conservation the ‘system’ often includes complex or impenetrable habitats, variable climates, human social systems, socio-economic issues, multiple and changeable impacts of threats and so on.

It is no wonder therefore, that we should focus on the problems of the system first, before bashing our co-workers over the head in judgement! As American Management ‘guru’ Ed Deming would say: 95% of problems are due to the system, only 5% due to people being at fault (Deming, 1982).

This awareness should shape the way we frame our questions. It is more effective to phrase issues in your questions around the work, not the person. Here are a few examples:

If we have a problem with a method or technology, ask:
Why do we think this is not working?
(instead of “Why can’t you get it to work?”)

If we don’t know enough about a particular species, consider:
What do we know already?” and “What do we need to find out?

If something unexpected happens, ask:
Why do we think this occurred?
(rather than “Why they hell did that happen?”)

If we uncover a difficult problem, ask:
What would help us to solve this problem?
(rather than “Why did you let this happen?”)

If we encounter a difficult situation or conflict ask:
What are their needs?
(rather than “Did you ask them what they wanted?”)

If the team are struggling, consider asking:
How can I help?
(rather than “Why don’t you lot grow up?”)

These suggestions are not mere semantics. The effectiveness of our behaviour starts with our personal values, beliefs and attitudes. If we believe most problems are caused by people it will show in our behaviours and the way we ask questions, and we will get a negative response from colleagues. They are more likely to tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than real underlying issues.

If we really want to seek knowledge and understand what is going on, we need to ask the right questions and that way we have a greater chance of getting a better response.


Black S. A., Groombridge J.J. and Jones C. (2011) Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead, Conservation Letters 4 (5): 329-339. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00184.x

Deming, W. E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge,
Mass, USA.

Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands

A new book, published this June 2018 draws on the experiences of conservation interventions on islands, and the threats that they attempt to overcome to protect and recovery endangered species.

The book brings together leading conservation practitioners to reflect on their response to the current global biodiversity crisis, through the lens of island species recovery and management.

Initial chapters cover the biological understanding of small population biology and the growing threat of invasive species, while subsequent chapters discuss the management of these threats and the complexity of leading projects within a dynamic and still relatively unknown system. Multiple case studies from islands worldwide illustrate key points, allowing readers to draw on the first-hand practical experience of respected professionals.

This resource will be invaluable to both current and future conservation professionals, helping them to go beyond disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ and develop, manage and lead projects over extensive time frames in a way that brings others with them on the journey.

So what really is leadership? Offer us your views…

Readers of The Conservation Leader blog have an opportunity to participate in a major survey examining which aspects of leadership are most important and influential in successful leadership.

If you wish to participate in the survey, which is led by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and the School of Psychology at the University of Kent, UK. The survey is anonymous and confidential and entirely voluntary. To find out more go to the landing page at this link (see below), where you are able to give your consent to participate before you commit to completing the questionnaire and also prior to final submission of your answers. We hope that you are able to contribute.

You can access the survey here: Conservation Leadership Survey

Thanks for your participation.

Simon Black (Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology)

Leaders must focus on ‘what’ & worry less about the ‘how’

Simon Black – 

So, we are grappling with the idea that conservation professionals need to be more effective at leadership. This demands a whole new set of skills – an almost overwhelming array of strategic, mental, interpersonal and management techniques. What on earth should we work on first?

The emerging consensus over recent decades in discussions about leadership and management behaviour has emphasised that a leader needs to ‘change the way that they lead’. Although the ‘how you do it’ and ‘what you do’ both contribute to effective leadership, the research literature is overwhelmingly focused on the how (Kaiser et al, 2012). Hunt (1991) reviewed the body of published scholarly articles on leadership and estimated that 90% of them were focused on interpersonal processes. It is also most likely that the majority of leadership developers and consultants have a ‘how’ bias, which may influence the debate. The focus is on how you go about things.

But do leaders know ‘what’ to do? Should we agree aims, develop a vision, inspire people, create teams, empower, engage, delegate, set targets, punish, reward, restructure, enable, measure results, improve services, prioritise, plan or problem-solve? What do these things mean? Which things are helpful and which things just cause problems?

Let’s be clear, our own styles and preferences (hows) are different to each member of out team. We need to be able to adapt in order to interrelate with others. But that may just be the icing on the cake. If we don’t get the ‘whats’ right we will only be deluding ourselves.

But as a conservation leader focus first on what needs to be done:

  • providing clarity on purpose
  • developing knowledge (of species, ecosystems, threats and methods)
  • setting useful and meaningful goals
  • building robust and practical plans
  • enabling problem solving and encouraging learning
  • setting clear roles for people
  • manage the work (with the people who do it)
  • adapting plans to suit circumstances

There are also some definite ‘No-No’s’ to avoid. For starters I suggest that you DO NOT do the following things:

  • set targets (numerical targets DO NOT motivate/focus people)   N
  • blame people for mistakes (its not their ‘fault’ 90% of the time)  O
  • manage people (focus on the work instead)                                      |
  • make point-to-point comparisons, like this year v last year          N
    (instead look at the body of data over time).                                     O

Get clarity in what you think and what you say. Be straight with people and don’t play psychological games. Once those things are clear in your ahead, work harder of the softer skills – they will make life easier and more fun.


Black S. A. (2015) A clear purpose is the start point for conservation leadership. Conservation Letters, 8(5), 383–384. doi: 10.1111/conl.12203

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership  3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Hunt, J. G. (1991). Leadership: A new synthesis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.