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How To Be a Superhero Boss

6 minute read

By Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms, CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion

Are you a manager struggling to get the best out of your team? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the UK workplace, as 82% of managers who enter management positions have not had any formal management and leadership training. Ill-equipped to handle the ‘people side’ of leadership, managers across the board are finding it difficult to nurture high-performing, inclusive, and collaborative cultures.

But there is a solution. Asking better questions is a superpower that can be learned, transforming employee engagement, autonomy, and productivity and making you a superhero boss! So, what kind of questions should you ask, and when should you ask them?


First, let’s consider a common scenario at work. A team member comes to you with a problem they’re facing, and, born out of a desire to help, your immediate reaction is to fix or solve their problem by providing solutions and ‘telling’ them what to do based on your own knowledge and experience. While coming from a good place, this approach can be detrimental. But why?

The reality is, that the moment you provide a ‘fix’, you have inadvertently removed the learning opportunity for your employees to find solutions to problems themselves. Not stimulating their thinking in this way provides little room for them to develop their own initiative and problem-solving skills, crucial for their career advancement. Engagement and productivity inevitably wane, as they lose ownership of their work and continue to rely on you for all the answers.

Instead of always reacting to situations and offering solutions, leaders need to switch to asking questions that better engage the talents of those around them. A well-intentioned question can help them focus on what they can change about the situation. It could help them develop their prioritisation skills, build their confidence around decision-making, or step up to tackle a larger problem.


Reading the situation and asking powerful questions is a learned skill. As leaders become more adept at it, they get a sense of what people need and how to stimulate their thinking. That’s when it becomes a superpower!

Let’s look at the types of questions you can begin to ask when an employee approaches you for help with a certain issue:


At the outset of a conversation, your questions should help define the issue's scope and focus. Three types of questions can help you here:

  1. Clarify questions like “What’s the crux of the issue?” or “What outcome do we need?” are more factually oriented and can help focus the conversation or clarify pertinent details.
  2. Compare questions like “More than who/what?” or “How many compared to last month?” can help the other person gain perspective by having them consider the actual scale of the issue against other comparators, putting it in perspective.
  3. Explore questions like “How might you…?” “What else…?” or “What would need to change?” help develop the other person’s thinking about the situation they’re facing.


Once you’ve established the scope and focus, Insight and Action questions invite the other person to consider the issue from different angles to trigger new insights and potential actions for moving forward. Three types of questions can help you here:

  1. Change Context Questions like “What do you not want to change?” or “When that doesn’t happen, what’s different?” force the other person to consider the situation afresh in a different context. This helps the brain construct new mental imagery and glean relevant insights to answer the question in a new light.
  2. Shift Perspective Questions like “What does the customer see?” or “What advice would you give to a colleague in your situation?” offer a similar method for provoking new thinking and are used to help someone generate new insights when viewed from someone else’s perspective.
  3. Challenge Barriers Questions like “What is it that makes you think you can’t?” or “What’s preventing you from…?” are useful for helping someone overcome the things that are potentially getting in their way and may be preventing them from moving forward or pursuing an action. Asking someone a well-intentioned question that challenges their perceived barriers can see those barriers vanish. This can forever affect their future potential.


From your organisation’s perspective, consider what your workplace might be like if more leaders frequently started asking more powerful questions. Whenever you ask a colleague an insightful question, you positively affect their thinking, perhaps creating a lightbulb moment for them. Imagine that this is like you’re shining a torch on them, illuminating their thinking. Then the shadow they’re casting behind them falls onto the organisation. We like to think of it as a bright shadow. This means that a change in the way someone thinks can have an equally positive impact on the organisation and those around them.

The more people that you shine your torch onto, the more lightbulb moments occur, and the more engaged and empowered they become, generating new ideas and seeing through actions which, in turn, helps them to improve their performance. Now imagine that those people also begin asking better questions of themselves and others. This cascade effect is as simple as you starting to ask better questions, and in no time the bright shadows you create will begin to be replicated across your organisation. Asking better questions truly is a superpower that can help you cultivate the most engaged, motivated and inclusive teams – and who wouldn’t want to work for a superhero boss like that?


Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms are the CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion. They created the multi-award-winning STAR® Manager programme, which managers are adopting in 40 countries and recently co-authored the new management bestseller The Answer is a Question.



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