By: Nadia Goodman
When your employees ask for help, how you respond can either empower them to find a solution or make them dependent on your input. One simple response consistently empowers employees: answering with a question instead of a statement.
“The most common mistake managers make when helping a direct report solve a problem is a knee-jerk reaction to deliver an answer,” says LeeAnn Renninger, director of LifeLabs, a Manhattan-based professional development and research organization, which offers a class on this technique.
The problem with advice is that employees don’t learn to solve problems independently. They rely on you for answers. Beyond that, advice conveys a lack of confidence in someone’s ability to find a solution, so it erodes your employees’ self-assurance.
LifeLabs has found, through extensive research, that extraordinary managers ask more questions. “Instead of simply giving an answer, they help their direct reports clarify and deepen their own thinking,” Renninger says. “It quickly increases the performance of their team.”
Thoughtful questions can move a meeting past a stuck point, uncover overlooked patterns, inspire innovation, and motivate employees. Plus, a team with a manager that asks more questions has higher work satisfaction and a greater sense of unity.
Here are four exercises to help you start asking more questions:
1. Track how many questions you ask. At your next meeting, ask a colleague to track your questions in one column and your statements in another. Look at the ratio of questions to statements and work on increasing the number of questions you ask.
Anyone can learn to ask more questions. “The best managers spend time building their questioning muscles,” Renninger says. “They practice and learn which questions make the biggest impact, and when and how to apply them.”
2. Have a questions-only conversation. When an employee comes to you for advice, experiment with asking only questions for the entire conversation. “See if you can phrase each of your statements as a question,” Renninger says.
Guide your employees to their own solutions by teasing out their thought process. Ask, what are your thoughts on this so far? What have you tried? What options are you leaning towards? Why? By asking someone to elaborate, you help them make sense of the problem. The solution often becomes clear.
3. Keep a list of questions during meetings. Managers can easily dominate a meeting, so give your employees the spotlight by asking questions. “Draw a line down the left side of your paper and jot down questions that come to mind based on what you hear,” Renninger says.
Note any points of confusion or topics you want to hear more about. You might ask questions comparing this situation to another, such as, what is different this time versus last time? Or, you might ask questions about impact, such as, if these bugs don’t get fixed, what would happen? “Good questions challenge your thinking,” Renninger says. “They reframe and redefine the problem.”
4. Write 20 questions about a random object. To build a question habit, try a quick game that LifeLabs calls the ’20 Questions’ exercise. Pick a random object — the pen in your hand or the lamp on your desk — and write 20 questions about that object in three minutes. “Around question 10-12, the brain moves into innovation mode,” Renninger says. “We start seeing a [positive] shift in the quality of the questions.”
Renninger recommends doing this exercise for five days straight, picking a different object, project, task, or person to focus on each time. By the end, you’ll be asking more questions naturally.