For 13 years, Gail Fierstein thrived as a technology manager at Goldman Sachs.
To maximize results, Fierstein asked lots of questions. She knew that guiding her staff to produce cutting-edge technology solutions, such as devising new tools to manage risk, meant dwelling on worst-case scenarios and taking steps to prevent them.
Her team didn’t mind her constant questioning. They understood that she sought to drill down to the details and challenge any assumptions that could lead them astray.
But what worked for Fierstein up to that point suddenly posed a problem when Goldman Sachs moved her from technology to human resources. Her tendency to interrogate employees didn’t go over so well in HR.
To her surprise, Fierstein found that HR staffers chafed at her questions. They viewed her behavior suspiciously, fearing that she wasn’t supportive of their efforts.
In the absence of trust, some leaders who like to ask questions can come across as domineering. Employees may interpret such questions as an adversarial cross-examination or as thinly disguised criticism.
Fierstein realized she needed to change her style. So she began explaining her approach to her HR team.
“You have to worry when I don’t ask questions,” she started telling them.
With new hires, she went further. She’d tell them, “I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. The more questions I ask, the more support I have for your proposal. So don’t misinterpret my intent.”
Setting the context helped her build trust. Eventually, she got promoted to run HR for an entire division.
— Adapted from Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Harper Business.