“So, what have you got for me today?”
If you only had a dollar for every time you’ve heard that question from your boss. But admit it – on occasion you’ve lobbed one of those at someone yourself, right?
Resourceful managers always want answers – and the quicker and more specific, the better.
Problem is, we might not be asking the right questions to get those answers.
It’s not unusual to ask uninspired questions when we’re at our busiest and need to get things done fast.
But questions that are too vague elicit blank stares. And questions that are overly complicated sound like you’re fishing for a specific answer.
Avoid The ‘Non-Question’
Every question has an intention behind it, says Marlene Chism, consultant and author of No-Drama Leadership. When we ask questions that are too general, we’re attempting to hide that intention whether we mean to or not.
In other words – why are you asking, really?
Take “So, how’s that project coming?”
Do you just want reassurance it’s getting done? “It’s right on schedule.”
Do you want to know if there are problems? “Easy sailing so far!”
Or do you want the gory details? “We underestimated the budget so we had no choice but to scrap the entire thing.”
Be A More Curious Manager
You want your team to sense that you’re asking questions because of genuine interest in how they’re doing their work, not because you’ve got an ulterior motive to catch them off-guard.
So make sure your questions are more “open” than “closed.”
There’s a difference. Close-ended questions usually require a yes or no answer only – and if that’s all you need, that’s fine. But they can also make employees wary of telling you what you might not want to hear.
Since open-ended questions require some explanation and detail, you’ll get better answers.
Here are 5 ways to frame open questions so you get the kinds of answers that can help you:
1) Avoid ‘Statement’ Questions That Squelch Thinking
Making a declarative statement followed by a question shuts down others’ viewpoints and can limit creative thinking.
Take this question: “Since it’s clear our strategy isn’t working, what’s the problem?”
It sounds harmless, but it takes any response they have for granted because you’ve already made clear you think the strategy failed.
You’ve assumed that:
- your employees agree with you. and
- they’ve had enough time to assess the problem.
Get employees thinking on their own by rephrasing: “It looks like our strategy might need some changes. Any ideas of what we can do better?”
2) Avoid Questions That Insist On An Absolute Certainty
It’s OK to accept a little ambiguity if you need to get more context.
Say you want to check on the status of a project. If you ask, “Will I have your report on my desk on Friday morning?” you force the answer “yes” or “no” without getting any other information.
Instead, ask “How is the project going? Do you think you can have a report to me by Friday?”
This opens up the person to say yes or no and gives them the opportunity to offer details.
3) Ask More Questions With ‘Why’ And ‘How’
These questions indicate that you’re looking for a detailed answer. They show that you’re curious about what the other person thinks or knows (“Why do you feel this new approach would make our plan work better?”)
But remember, hold the questions if you’re not able to really listen or don’t have ample time to hear the person out.
4) Probe A Little To Get Missed Insights
These questions are effective when addressing problems or conflicts because they can help diffuse emotional reactions. Rather than blustering, “How did this happen?!” a focus on getting to the root of the crisis shows you’re thinking ahead for a resolution.
Questions can be general (“What do you think caused the rollout delay?”), but they’re more effective when they’re more specific (“Do you think we budgeted too little time for the rollout?”).
5) Leave Assumptions Out Of It
Like with statement questions, we sometimes add our own opinions to an otherwise objective question. We do this and not realize it mainly when we’re feeling rushed or pressured.
But if you want your team to come up with creative solutions, resolving the issue yourself won’t get them.
For example: “Since we’re running way behind schedule on the roll-out, and it’s not close to being complete, should we delay it by a few weeks?”
The question sounds like you’ve made a strong leadership call, and you’re likely to get a very weak answer: “OK, that sounds fine.”
No one is going to argue with you or give a more thorough idea if it sounds like you’ve already made your decision!
If you genuinely want employee input, get the right information from your team with a series of questions like this:
“I’m told we’re running behind on the roll-out. Is this true?”
“Can you give me a ballpark figure on how close is it to being complete?”
“So would a delay of two weeks give us enough time?”
Good leaders want intelligent, informed answers from employees. Asking pointed questions – while leaving out hidden intentions – is a proven way to get them.
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