Looking For Answers? Find the Right Questions

By Lauren Lee Anderson

Asking your team questions seems simple enough, getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ out of someone is not relational rocket science. However, getting to the truth of deep and important matters via communication is an art and practice that requires a great deal of forethought and preparation. You are trying to discover what you don’t know from someone who may not be eager to share.

From the employee perspective, being asked even a straight-forward question can cause anxiety, especially if the perception is that the question-asker has all of the power. Employees are people, and to run a human-centered company you need to master communication.

Your people are full of ideas, insights, thoughts and feelings that make up the true pulse of your organization. Not only that, they are an incredible source of problem solving and innovation.

Asking the right questions at the right time is a subtle art. Do it well and the person you are asking will feel trust and validation, not fear and intimidation. Which questions will allow you to see what’s really going on in the world of your workforce?

Keep it open

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and paused to collect your thoughts, only to have the other person fill in the blank? This is a very open-ended way of starting a dialogue, by triggering the natural propensity towards completion that we all share. Keeping it open-ended is an invitation that subliminally conveys, “I value your opinion, contribution, perspective and am opening the door for you to share it.”

Far too frequently we launch into our mission to get the answers by asking questions that are heavily loaded with our own opinion, which immediately taint and skew the response we will receive. For example if creative is delivered past its deadline and I approach the designer by conveying the assumption that he is a slacker, I’m a lot less likely to get the truth out of him.

Let’s say that designer had a stroke of inspiration right before the project deadline, a truly brilliant idea for a new direction. Because he took some time to explore it, the original scope was turned in late. If I approach him with an attitude of “you know, this is the second time something has been late and I just feel like you’re becoming apathetic. What’s your reason this time?”, it’s almost a guarantee that I won’t ever see or hear of his brilliant idea. I will probably just receive a defensive excuse.

Instead, try asking open-ended questions with full benefit of the doubt. Use ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’ to encourage dialogue and keep the question to the point. To the designer, “Thank you for the work but why did you miss your deadline?” Asking how and why will elicit an employee’s motivations and thoughts and really give you a sense of how they operate. And if a brilliant idea (or actual problem!) has surfaced, you’ll be a lot more likely to hear about it.

Put it in writing

Mastering questions at the individual level will contribute toward creating a culture of transparency on the organizational level, where productivity and transparency thrive team-wide. Of course asking every employee questions face-to-face would take up all of your time. That is why we recommend streamlining the process with simple, regularly written reports like our own 15Five.

Start by asking 2 or 3 questions that are relatively simple and non-threatening. This will help to build a foundation of trust and you can gain tremendous insight into how your employees feel at work. For example, ask how the employee has experienced one of the company values. Or get their perspective on the overall morale of the team. Another great approach is to keep the question positive by asking about an employee’s triumphs to gain insight into what they’re proud of and what they consider wins.

Learn from your mistakes

The hardest questions to ask and answer are those that deal with our weaknesses and blind spots. Ultimately we want the individual to be honest and the culture to have an environment of support. It has been said that “knowing your weakness is your greatest strength”. By learning from mistakes and embracing our failures, we adapt an innovative advantage that happens when small, fast fails pave the road to success.

Asking employees to disclose trouble spots can be tricky because they will likely feel reluctant to share what they don’t know, skills that they don’t have, or mistakes that they have made. Just like the IDEO axiom “Fail often, to succeed sooner”, this is an opportunity to express the belief that failure is an important part of success.

Employees develop a fear of failure and transparency because their mistakes have been met with unconstructive feedback and punitive measures in the past. You can assuage their concerns that they are being judged, but also create a culture where it’s okay to be vulnerable and where experimentation is encouraged.

Make it known that mistakes are not the end of the world. When they are swept under the rug, they are likely to repeat. But mistakes that are embraced early remain small and controllable. People will be more inclined to experiment, to speak up, and ultimately to raise the bar for your entire organization.

Encourage innovation

Employees know more about the specifics of their roles than anyone else at the company. They are uniquely qualified to provide detailed insights on improvements, because they have the knowledge and the deep desire to make an impact.

Ask your employees a feedback question each week that encourages creativity: “Suggest one improvement for the product, your role, or a process.” The employee in the trenches also knows the best methods for bringing about an improvement, since they have probably experimented with different options during their tenure.

Be vulnerable

Creating a culture of transparency means that everyone including leadership must be willing to face the truth. Few employees will tell you to your face that you are a poor manager, so ask them what they think of you. As a manager, it’s good to be vulnerable at the right times. Get the truth any way you can, whether through a face-to-face interaction or a regular feedback report.

The beauty of the type-written report is that it invites candor and true transparency. What you learn will not only help you understand the needs of your employees and the condition of your organization, it can help you to become a more effective leader.

What questions do you ask your team to encourage them to be their best? Leave us a comment below.

Know the pulse of your team each week and improve employee engagement with 15Five.

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