How To Ask Your Staff (Employees) The Right Questions (Leadership Skills)
In this post, we look at the core skill of effective questioning. First of all we provide examples of ineffective and effective questioning, then analyse to determine what the right questions are and conclude by looking at what to do to become an effective questioner – developing our followers and improving our relationships with them.
Asking The Right Questions
First, let us look at one example of ineffective questioning, then two examples of effective questioning.
We eavesdrop on a conversation between a boss (B) and a subordinate (S) that may have met the boss’ objectives, but completely demotivated the employee.
B: ‘Chris tells me that you were late again this morning. Is that correct?’
S: ‘Yes. I’m very sorry.’
B: ‘In fact, you were half an hour late. Am I right?’
S: ‘Yes.’ (mumbled)
B: ‘To be completely accurate (and you know that I like to have my facts right), you have been half an hour late every day this week, have you not?’
B: ‘Well, this firm does not tolerate laziness and tardiness. I am a fair person, as you know, but I don’t beat about the bush. If this occurs once more, we will start the disciplinary procedures against you. Do I make myself clear?’
B: ‘Well, don’t let it happen again.’
First of all, let us have a re-run of the conversation, but this time with a boss who has learnt what the right questions are and how to ask them. Then we shall look at how a problem was avoided by asking the right questions in the right sequence.
B: ‘Chris tells me that you were half an hour late this morning, and, in fact, every morning this week. Is that correct?’
S: ‘Yes. I’m very sorry.’
B: ‘Tell me why were you late?’
S: ‘Well, the traffic’s been very bad.’
B: ‘But the traffic’s always bad, and you normally come to work on time. So, what’s the problem?’
S: ‘Well… My mother’s very poorly.’
B: ‘I’m sorry to hear that, John. It must be very tough for you – I know you are very close to your mother.’
S: ‘Yes, Alex, it’s tough all right.’
B: (Pause) ‘But, I don’t see why you have been getting here late, John.’
S: ‘Well, mother now needs our full-time care. She can’t be left on her own for a minute. Barbara, my wife, works nights and doesn’t get back home until half-past eight. I immediately set off for work, but, because of the traffic, I’m late.’
B: ‘I see. And because you want to get home as soon as possible to relieve Barbara, who must be tired out, you have left work at the normal time, rather than making the time up?’
S: ‘Yes and no, Alex. I have left at the normal time, but I have cut my lunch break to half an hour, and made up the time that way.’
B: ‘I see. I’ve no problem with that at all.’
How To Solve A Problem
This is a true story. The Alaskan Electricity Company faced terrible problems a number of years ago. It managed over 1000 miles of overground telegraph poles, supplying electricity to a sparse and widely scattered population in very hostile weather conditions. As a result of the terrible weather, ice and snow gathered on the overhead cables, which frequently snapped under the weight. Teams of men had to travel very long distances to repair these cables. The costs of such operations exhausted all the profits.
The company solved the problem by a group of people questioning effectively. These are the questions that were asked.
‘Why don’t we shake the poles?’
‘That would be difficult with over 1000 miles of poles – but let’s develop the theme.’
‘OK. Why don’t we get bears to shake the poles?’
‘Well, yes… but how can we persuade the bears to shake the poles? How can we motivate the bears?’
‘Well, why don’t we put meat on top of the poles? In their attempts to reach the top of the poles to eat the meat, they will shake the poles and dislodge the ice and snow.’
‘But how do we get meat to the top of the poles?’
‘I know, why don’t we use helicopters to fly the meat to the poles and place it on top for the bears?’
‘I have a better idea. Why don’t we use the helicopters to remove the ice and snow with their whirring blades and forget about all the bears?’
And that is what the Alaskan Electricity Company did – with considerable cost saving.
Analyzing Your Conversations With Your Staff And Employees
Now, let’s look back at the conversations and problem and consider the differences between ineffective and effective questioning.
The key difference is the use of ‘open’ questions as opposed to ‘closed’ questions. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:
I kept six honest serving men.
They taught me all I knew;
Their names were what and why and when,
And how and where and who.
The types of and differences between open and closed questions are set out in Figure 5.1.
We all, with the rare exception, have a tendency to ask closed questions. There are three key reasons for this:
Our schooling is much more about finding answers – being provided with information that we use to develop conclusions – than it is about promoting discovery. As a result, we have an inevitable bias towards asking questions that provide answers.
One great advantage of closed questions is that there are immediate answers. We know subconsciously that by asking a closed question, we are guaranteeing that we will have an answer. This means that outcomes are certain and controlled. Most of us like to be in control and even if we don’t, we like a degree of certainty.
With open questions, there is an unpredictability of outcomes, generating uncertainty and the possibility that we could lose control of the conversation. However, this is what we perceive,not the reality. An effective questioner and listener will be able to control both the direction and flow of any conversation.
As we have seen, few of us are taught about open questions.
With the ineffective conversation, there were only closed questions. With the effective conversation, there were three open and two closed.
With the problem, there were only open questions – eight in all.
What To Do To Question Effectively
Here we look at key actions to take to ensure that we have an effective conversation with a follower. The context could be development, appraisal or problem-solving. The approaches are based on the desire to get the follower to think for themselves, to discover where they are strong or weak, rather than the traditional ‘product’ push – us telling followers what their strengths and weaknesses are, or solving the problem for them.
Note that the techniques and approaches described are just as relevant in any other relationship, such as that with a customer or partner.
With the time and place known in advance, the more we think and plan the conversation, the more effective it will be. Additionally, during the meeting, using the ‘assertive pause’ – pausing and breathing more slowly and deeply than normal to clear our heads and control negative emotions – ensures that we remain in control of ourselves and, hence, the questions we ask.
Think Open Question
I was facilitating a practical session to help develop effective questioning skills in some managers from one of our clients that involved the following activities. One manager comes up with a real problem or issue they want to discuss, another asks open questions in order to fully understand the problem, with two others and myself in an observer role during the questioning and then providing feedback. In one case, the questioner asked 1 open question, followed by 14 closed, and ended up pushing a solution to a problem he did not understand, much to the dissatisfaction of his ‘client’.
While this last case is an extreme, the general norm, as we have established, is that we find it difficult to ask the right question, and so we must consciously think of the right open question to ask. For instance, when recapping, we should not summarize and then ask the closed question ‘Am I right?’, but rather, ‘What have I omitted?’ In the former case, the follower will simply say, ‘Yes, you are.’ In the latter, they will be much more inclined to advise the speaker of an omission.
This open approach is equally important with a team. If we brief a team about a task and then ask ‘Have you all understood?’, invariably, they will say ‘Yes’, thinking ‘I don’t want to look silly or inattentive in front of the boss’. However, if we ask someone to summarize – ‘Now, Jane, just to ensure we are all clear, what do you think is our objective?’ – this will lead to knowledge of where there are gaps, and, by checking with each group member, ensure everyone is singing from the same hymnsheet. This is better than a cacophony of sound emanating during the implementation phase, which, rather late in the day, forces us to realize that our assumption of understanding generated from the closed question approach was invalid.
Additionally, when establishing facts, rather than stating the facts and asking ‘Do you agree?’, it is much better to go the open route. For example, saying ‘What are the facts?’, and, when all the evidence has been brought into play, continue with, ‘And let us think of any information we may have overlooked’ before getting the closed agreement.
Avoid Leading Questions
Leading questions can be phrased in a closed or open style. They are the antithesis of promoting discovery or even problem-solving as they push or lead to the ‘one right answer’. For example, ‘The Chairman thinks we should sack Jones. What do you think?’ and ‘Surely you don’t have any doubts about our new mission do you?’
A variation of this is the ‘loaded’ question. With a leading question, our own views are implicit. In a loaded question, they are explicit or loaded in. Here are some examples:
- ‘Do you not agree that John has poor time-keeping?’
- ‘Why don’t you drop dead?!’
Not very open questions!
Avoid ‘Logical’ Closed Alternatives
Let us say the issue under discussion is a drop in sales: ‘Well, clearly we have to either reduce costs or increase revenue. Which do you favour?’
Far, far better to go the open route: ‘Let us consider all the options we could take to reverse this trend’. Incidentally, ‘or’ can be used exclusively, as in the above case (although there is no reason for not doing both) or conjunctively, that is, both alternatives can be selected. So, the following kind of question should be avoided.
Q: ‘Did you go to the cinema or the theatre?’
Use Perceptive, Probing Questions
A perceptive, probing question is one that you can only ask when you have become a good listener.
When you ask good open questions, the other person opens up that is their purpose. In the course of answering the particular question, they almost invariably drop in a phrase or even a sentence that is significant. This is inevitable as you are getting them to think, so either they reveal what was hidden from you or reveal what was latent or subconscious (hidden from them) and/or come up with completely new thoughts.
If you are listening acutely, you can easily pick up this significant phrase as there will usually be a slight change in the tone of voice or even body language.
Let us take the example of the manager, who asked 1 open, followed by 14 closed questions of the ‘problem holder’. The problem as originally stated was that the ‘problem holder’ was a leader of a number of teams, each of which had a team leader, one of whom had resigned. He had complete autonomy as to what actions he took, and he had to decide whether to hire in a new team leader, promote from within the existing team (downsizing) or promote from within and hire a new team member.
First of all, he overstressed the word ‘autonomy’. No one in business has complete autonomy these days, and he had a boss, who would have some views that he needed to ascertain, but that was not brought up.
Next, although the questioner asked all these closed questions, the ‘problem holder’ responded as if they were open because he was so anxious to air this real, important, work-related problem. On three occasions he dropped these little clues, but the matter was left unprobed.
On the first occasion, he referred, during a series of statements, to the fact that he would have a ‘bigger job’, and this should have been picked up on and probed. Something along the lines of the following.
Q: ‘That’s interesting. I noticed you mentioned that you would be taking on a bigger job. In what ways will your job become bigger?
On the second occasion, he dropped in the phrase ‘moving away’, which should have led to three open questions:
Q1, 2 and 3: ‘Thanks for that. You mentioned that you would be moving away. Where will you be going?’ After the reply: ‘When will you be going?’ and, after that reply: ‘And what will be the impact on your teams?’
Funnily enough, the third occasion was the cri de coeur. The ‘problem holder’ referred in the midst of other issues and points to ‘how he could keep his staff motivated’.
The real problem, subsequently uncovered as a result of effective questioning, was: ‘How do I keep my teams motivated, when I am going to take on additional responsibilities and be physically separate from them?’
Use The Right Wording
The way the question is worded will have a major impact on the answer given. The general rule is to focus the question so as to focus the other person. Some examples are:
- ‘What do you mean precisely?’ is better than ‘What do you mean?’, which could lead to ‘I mean what I say.’
- ‘In what ways is the job bigger?’ is better than ‘How much bigger is the job?’, which could lead to the answer ‘much, much bigger!’
- ‘What are all the possible actions we can take to reduce absenteeism’ is better than ‘How do we reduce absenteeism?’, or ‘What could all the possible reasons be for sales falling’ rather than ‘Why have sales fallen?’ Both the former increase the probability of a wider spectrum of ideas.
Keep Questions Simple
On a video, we have a persuasion role play involving two managers where one took more than ten minutes to ask his question. You should have seen the body language of the listener! If we are not confident or we are too involved or we are too rushed and speak before we think, we can get lost. We can start a question, go on a gentle ramble or lecture tour, recover and revert back to the question in hand. This is to be avoided, of course, as it makes us look silly and puts the listener to sleep! We must keep our questions simple and to the point.
Keep Questions Single
A golden rule of effective questioning is ‘one at a time’. More than one question can lead to confusion or evasion. The respondent can select which one to answer, and the other one or ones can be lost in the subsequent discussion.
A classic example of this occurred a few years ago, when a backbench Labour MP put forward written questions, intended to embarrass the government by showing the extent of sex discrimination in the Civil Service. Not only did he ask multiple questions, but ended by asking whether male staff or female staff were in the majority!
The junior minister’s written reply to the entire set of questions was one word – ‘Yes’!
Provide Answers, When Asked
There can be a danger that we get into an exclusive open question mind-set and so always end up answering a question with a question! Sharing your experiences and giving your opinions is a vital part of a leadership role. As we know, followers can lack confidence and need guidance and support. The trick is to try to build up confidence, promote discovery, develop thinking – shift the problem monkey back onto the shoulders where it should rightly rest – by asking all the right open questions. However, if and when you are asked for your opinion or your experience, then give it freely. The point is not to impose it early on, but to pull first and push later (if asked).
Too often, we simply push with all those closed, leading, logical alternative questions, and there is no real dialogue, no discovery and relationship enhancement.
As we have seen, being an effective questioner (and listener) does not come naturally to most. Thus the only way you will improve is to practice.