There’s nothing more human about work than using your brain at work to learn and grow. However, managers and training professionals face challenges tailoring leadership development experiences to meet individual learning needs.

Thanks to neuroscience research, we have new, no-nonsense approaches to help everyone at work to learn, develop, and lead. Ask questions about the person’s thinking – not the current problem.

Well-crafted thinking questions put the brain into a reflective mode that dampens negative or threatening emotions and opens the executive functions of the brain where insights and new thinking occur. Here are three questions that managers and trainers can ask to bring out the best thinking and new insights of humans at work.

Thinking questions include future-focused questions, scale questions, and the “not” question.

Future-Focused Questions
Future-focused questions put the brain’s emotions in a neutral to slightly positive state and spark new ideas. They help the leader or trainee envision success beyond the current dilemma and include:

  • What are you experiencing six months from now when this challenge is resolved?
  • What are your employees doing and saying?
  • How do your customers feel? What are they experiencing?

Once a leader pictures future success, he can begin to see potential actions that move him closer to a solution and beyond the current problem.

Scale Questions
Scale questions help leaders and trainees measure their thinking. Yes, you can ask them to measure their own thinking! It sounds like this:

“On a scale of one to ten, where ten is ‘crystal clear’ and 1 is ‘clear as mud,’ how clear is your thinking about this issue right now?”

When the leader responds with a number—for example, a six—ask her, “What makes your thinking a six instead of a one?”

The person shares what’s clear in her thinking, actions she may have already taken, or decisions she’s already considered. This builds confidence in her ability to move beyond the problem. Her emotions are in a neutral to slightly positive state, activating the pre-frontal cortex area of her brain and priming it for insights.

Then ask, “What’s the next thing you need to think about to make it a seven?”

When you ask the plus-one question, her brain searches for insights and possibilities. Her answer to the plus-one question is her next step. It may be a new question she needs to explore, a topic she needs to think about, or an action she decided to take. It’s the one thing that moves her forward, and it accelerates her learning in training programs and her performance as a leader.

The “Not” Question
There are times when the leader’s attention is so focused on the current problem that he’s not thinking clearly. That’s a good time to ask: “What have you not thought about that can be helpful right now?”

When a manager or trainer asks the “not” question, the leader’s brain starts looking for a missing puzzle piece, a nugget of information, or an experience that resolves the current dilemma.

Our brains crave certainty and clarity. The “not” question puts the brain into meta-search mode, seeking what the leader or trainee has not considered, and the brain won’t rest until it gets some certainty and clarity.

I coached an executive who led a department reorganization, was
focused on the right things to ensure the changes would be successful, and yet, he felt stuck.

I asked, “What have you not thought about that can help you right now?” He sat quiet for a long time, and so did I, careful not to interrupt his thinking or disturb the insight his brain was generating.

After a long pause, he said, “I haven’t thought about what it will be like to lead this team when we get to a post-reorg, stable situation.”

He spent a few minutes describing what it would look like and feel like when the dust
settled and the team was performing in its new state. He described it like a ship that had completed major upgrades and refurbishments, sailing to new ports with a new design and upgraded engines. He saw his role as a strategic captain guiding the team’s new direction. He saw the team as a skilled, knowledgeable crew who knew how to operate their respective departments.

Now he was ready to craft action steps to become the captain of his new ship. It only took the “not” question to get his brain searching for new possibilities and to think through his new level of performance as a leader.

Great managers and trainers ask well-crafted, thinking questions to help leaders learn and grow. Empower the people around you by asking future-focused questions, scale questions, and the “not” question that enable leaders and trainees to generate insights and solutions. Rely on humans@work to do what humans do best – think!

Jeff Nally is a credentialed executive coach, professional speaker, and co-author of the books, Humans@Work and Rethinking Human Resources. He can be reached at and