Managers: Do you “ask” enough?
Leadership, Professional Development
February 20, 2013
Topicsemotional intelligence, people management
How often do you ask your employees what they think?
Effective managers are good “askers.” You ask employees for their observations and suggestions. You ask for their reactions to your ideas and proposed solutions to problems. You re-ask when you don’t completely understand an employee’s statement. (Some managers think asking for clarification is a sign of weakness. It’s not.) You resist the temptation to react to the initial things people say, and instead ask questions. “What led you to that idea? What are the pros and cons you have identified?”
Seems easy, but are you really doing it?
Like the students in Lake Wobegon, most managers think their asking skills are above average. Asking questions doesn't seem that difficult. Some managers do not even view it as a separate skill set; they lump it into the category of “active listening.” I would argue that it is a distinct skill and often not done well.
Consider this example: An employee comes to you with a suggestion that you know you don't like. What do you do?
Many managers would immediately respond with why they don't like the suggestion or why they don’t think it’s workable (with various degrees of niceness). Few would ask, "What problem are you trying to solve?" The employee's suggestion may simply be a less-than-ideal solution to a very real problem. By asking questions, instead of immediately volunteering your opinion, you may be able to say, “I agree with your assessment of the problem, but not the suggested solution. Let's see if we can find another alternative to solve this problem."
Asking can lead to learning about a problem you didn’t know about before.
Asking is enabling, telling is limiting, and ignoring is irritating.
The key to good asking is believing your employees have information, knowledge, and ideas (that you don't have) that can help you achieve your objectives. If a manager believes this, he or she will show it in tone, words, and behavior by asking and re-asking.
If a manager doesn't believe this, it will also show in tone, words, and behavior and convey (at best) a lack of interest in involving employees or (at worst) a sense that you view employees as inferior thinkers. Self-absorbed managers don’t care what employees think. They destroy morale, retard innovation, and block productivity improvements. If you pull these managers aside and point out the damage, they are unlikely to change, because they don’t believe they are causing the problem.
Which type of manager do you want to be? One who believes you have all the answers or one who asks questions? If you think you are not asking enough, you are probably right. It’s easy to let deadlines, meetings, and to-do lists get in the way. And another day passes without seeking employee input. But working to improve this skill can significantly enhance your career as a manager.
Start by increasing the frequency of your “elaborative asking”---asking for clarity when a response is unclear and asking for more details when a response isn't thorough. Once your employees know you are really interested and will continue to ask for clarity, they will come prepared to be more articulate the next time they interact with you.
Master the art of asking and you will enrich your understanding of employees, the challenges they face, and their ideas for meeting those challenges. Workers will sense that you care about what they have to say, and that will lead to higher employee engagement and stronger business results.
Asking is one of five skills required to Relate well with employees (the others are Listening, Including, Coaching, and Encouraging). To find out how well you Relate, there’s a free assessment at www.ManagingPeopleBetter.com.
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Thanks for the great post Pete. When I first became a manager, I thought I had all the great ideas. It wasn’t until I realized that when I presented my idea, everyone considered that I had made a decision. It wasn’t until I started asking questions, before giving my own thoughts, that I started learning what everyone else thought. And you know, they had some better ideas after all!
Thanks for the challenge and the reminder. Mike…
I think you know you’ve asked a good question as a leader when the person looks at you with a stunned face and says , “that’s a great question…” and then really needs to think.
Thanks, Karin, for your addition. I agree completely and it’s a neat feeling to virtually see them think.
Hi Pete, thanks for the great post, example scenarios and great questions. Very practical and very insightful. I’d also like to suggest that it’s just as important for managers and leaders to ask questions of themselves. Questions such as: What do we want to accomplish? What’s the best way to get there? These questions and many others have been recommended by top consultants through my work at 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success. Questions are more powerful than answers.
Couldn’t agree more, Bill. even partial answers to the right questions are more powerful than the right answers to the wrong questions.
That’s a very insightful article, Peter. Especially when managers find themselves in difficult situations with employees, such as the one you described where you don’t like an employees suggestions, asking good questions eases tension and paves the road to discovery.
Douglas Daft, former Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola said the best managers are the ones who ask the most questions and ask for the most help.
[…] increasingly important to ask for input from your employees and that is the main idea behind Managers: Do you “ask” enough?. I think one of the first paragraphs sums it up very […]