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8 little changes that make a big difference when asking employee questions

You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.  You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.

Naguib Mahfouz

One of my favourite leadership practices is asking active questions.  It might sound really basic, but it is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a high trust leader.  They ask questions, rather than jump to conclusions or offer unsolicited advice.  It is key to fostering high-impact conversations.

Robert Bales, one of the first scientists to study group communications, discovered that while questions comprise only 6% of verbal interactions, they generate 60% of subsequent discussions.

The benefits of asking incisive questions are countless.  First of all, it improves the quality of your leadership. Ensuring that you stay present, which makes others feel heard and valued.   This works toward forming deeper bonds with your direct reports and building trust.   It also helps team members form bonds with one another, as they listen to one another’s issues and progress.

Incisive questions also encourage others to generate new ways of thinking or looking at an issue.  Rather than the fairly typical practice of people advocating or agreeing that often leads to groupthink.

Not only that, asking great questions gives you more of an intuitive feel for the business.  Helping you make more informed decisions.  It also fosters commitment and passion in staff that makes them more likely to follow you during change and uncertainty.  

It also trains people to ask other team member’s questions.  Reducing time wasted through people trying to work it out themselves or pretending they know the answer.   But it also creates the necessity for voice sending a subtle message that people’s voices are important because you are expecting an answer.

Furthermore, the more your subordinates get used to being asked questions, the more likely they will be to stop requiring excessive direction and approval.  They stop people being order takers and figuring out things on their own.  Gaining the confidence to trust themselves to solve problems and take the initiative.  

One of the challenges with being a leader is avoiding the belief that you have to have all the answers.  There are so many unknowns and so much uncertainty.  Leading by asking questions models to your direct reports that even during a crisis, you can calmly address an issue through asking deep questions and keeping the lines of communication open.

Best Practices for Asking Questions

You want to make sure that you ask questions in a way that enables people to feel heard, valued and appreciated.  Often, I find leaders struggle with asking questions because they miss important steps.

Here are some important tips to help you ask questions more effectively:

  1. Listen, really listen - I would guess that about 95% of people like to talk -  about themselves.  This works against us, when we are trying to make others feel safe.  Work towards understanding what is important to the other person, so you can tailor your communication to their interests.  Give people space to talk.  Avoid interrupting or even answering the question for them.
  2. Give eye contact - Make sure you are really present by stopping what you are doing.  Avoid looking over someone’s shoulder at something that might appear more interesting than them.  Look into the other person’s eyes - taking into account their reaction.  If they keep looking away, reduce eye contact.  If they hold your gaze for a good period of time, keep up regular contact. 
  3. Ask for further information- To really show you are interested in the other person, probe for further information.  When they finish talking ask “Is there anything else you want to add?” or “Is there something else you wanted to discuss that we missed?”  Avoid ignoring information that is hard for them to share or dismiss what is uncomfortable for you.  During these times, it’s more important to really listen and ask for more information.  
  4. Take action, if required - If someone flags an issue that needs attention, make sure you do something about it.  When we ignore issues. it generates distrust.  At a later time, follow up with progress or resolutions, to ensure people know that you value their contribution.
  5. Say thanks - Let people know that you appreciate their comments or opinions.  Providing thanks encourages safety and increases the likelihood that people will flag issues when they pop up again.  
  6. Admit what you don’t know - Asking questions is also an opportunity to confess you don’t know something.  People are more likely to help us, when we ask for their advice.  This lets people know that you are there for yourself.  It also displays vulnerability which encourages others to admit weaknesses.
  7. Don’t be dismissive - Once I sat in on a leadership team meeting to uncover why there was a lack of trust in the large team.  The CEO asked people great questions, had the right body postures and would probe for further information.  But what was letting his performance down was that if people raised issues he didn't like he would tell them they were wrong.  It happened a lot.  And he would go into full combat, argumentative mode.  It closed down a lot of discussions.
  8. Keep your body language open - Ensure you body language shows your interest in what people are saying.  Keep your arms open - don’t cross them.  Make sure your body is facing them - rather than the door or where you really want to be.

Learning to have genuine conversations builds human connection ensuring that your direct reports and peers feel supported.  It's about sending the message that you aren't always right or don't know what's the best way forward, but you are willing to invite other people's contribution.

Helping people move out of their own comfort zone into the achievement zone.  Working with others to be their best.


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