Harnessing the Power of Engaging Questions

“Judge a man by his question rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire

A 2010 study conducted by HR.com of 4,000 employees stated, “almost half (46%) [of the employees] were unsure of what was being asked of them by their line manager when given tasks and over a third (37%) experienced this uncertainty between one and three times a day. Employees estimated this resulted in up to 40 minutes of wasted time per day – the equivalent of 83 employees in a company of 1,000 doing nothing every day.”

As a leader, one of the most important tasks is to effectively express direction and guidance of the organization’s vision to the employees while empowering those same employees to use their skills, talents, and resources to execute that vision.  But, when a leader’s guidance and direction is unclear, frustration and unproductivity quickly set in. Employees will likely either waste resources, miss deadlines, or not complete the objective or task at all. So, to prevent this from happening, most leaders employ an entourage of follow-up questions to the employees that are often interpreted as micro-managing and demeaning.

Are there better ways to ask questions that promote critical thinking and invoke an answer with greater value? The answer is most certainly yes.

Ironically, professions such as doctors, lawyers, and therapists value and train on how to ask questions as an essential part of their profession. But what about business professionals? Why is it uncommon for business leaders to set aside time and resources to train leaders on how to utilize effective questions in the corporate environment?

There is an art and science to the skill of asking effective questions, and it can be a powerful tool for unlocking hidden value in and out of your organization.

An organization will benefit in the following ways if it has practitioners skilled in asking engaging questions :

• Promoting a learning and critical thinking culture
• Breeding new ideas
• Uncovering truth and root causes faster
• Increasing process improvement with better outcomes
• Building trust and improving transparency
• Reducing business risk
• Increasing customer/market awareness

If you want to unlock the power of questioning in your organization, here are a few tips and examples to help you get going:

1. Be a good listener first. If your employees know you are listening, they will open up with more details and transparency. A good leader always listens and respects the input of others around them. This is also a fundamental building block of creating trust in an organization.

2. Ask follow-up questions. Using follow-up questions is easy to implement because they do not require significant thought or depth of knowledge. These types of questions are asked by simply taking the answer you just received and asking for further clarification, ideas, opinions, etc. This can be a great way to not only learn more about the problem at hand, but also get someone else’s opinion or recommendation on the matter. I had an experience where I became aware of a specific problem with one facet of an organization based on an answer from the leader. Instead of immediately formulating my own solution, I took a field trip and visited with the leader as well as this leader’s employees during which I asked a series of follow-up questions regarding the issue. Through this careful process of asking additional questions, I realized that the actual issue was not what I initially thought. It turns out that if I had implemented a solution to my initial understanding of the issue, I would have made the problem worse, not better. By asking follow-up questions, I was able to help resolve the issue rather than amplifying the problem.

Asking follow-up questions can quickly lead to discovery of the root cause of the problem and just as important, show employees that you care because you value their input.

Example: “You mentioned employee so and so was not carrying his fair share of the workload on this project…When you addressed this with him, what was his response?”

3. Ask measurable questions. Measurable questions are most used when an assessment is needed with some type of definable measure. Whether used in external or internal surveys or for accountability tracking, measurable questions are used to deliver quantifiable answers. Measurable questions also help leaders understand current performance and trends.

Example: “In order to complete this project one week early, how many extra hours of overtime budget do you anticipate it will cost?”

Example: “On a scale of 1-5 (scale defined), how would you rate your overall satisfaction with your engagement with our customer service member on XX date?”

4. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions promote creativity and innovation. When you are looking for free thinking ideas or feedback crafted from the perspective of the respondent, then open-ended questions are a great way to spark this type of input.

Example: “What is the single-most important thing I can do to help you accomplish your career goals?”

Asking engaging questions promotes learning and critical thinking in your employees and allows them to create new ideas because they know that you are willing to listen. You can uncover root causes of issues and also learn the truth of what is happening within your organization. Questioning appropriately is a key role in performance improvement as it breaks through the fog of organizational data that many employees work in every day. Showing your interest in the input of your employees also builds trust and creates transparency which in turn reduces business risk.

This is how you harness the power of engaging questions.