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Are asking questions a good strategy for getting ahead, or should you just sit idly by? The question is a good one because contrary to the business truism “There are no bad questions,” several types of questions can have a negative effect on subordinates.

As a Manager, if you are asking your employees questions about why they did not say complete a project on time or because they didn’t meet a goal, you will more than likely force them to become defensive or reactive. Questions like

  • Why are you behind schedule?
  • What’s the problem with this project?
  • Who isn’t keeping up?
  • Don’t you know any better than that?
  • What happened?
  • What approach did you use?
  • How did you attempt to meet your goal?

Expect that now your employees will recite to you all the reasons why they didn’t, couldn’t wouldn’t etc. and they will all be centered on situations, experiences and the steps they took in attempting to reach whatever it was that you were expecting them to do. Basically you are getting excuses. And that doesn’t address the real issue which is “why”?  Why did it happen or not?

By asking those situational-centric questions you are no where nearer to understanding the real issue.  Situational-centric questions tend to shut down any chance that you have for finding out what actually happened. Furthermore those questions don’t allow  your employees to clarify any misunderstanding.

If you limit the scope of your questions, you will be limited to receiving only certain answers or excuses. These are not effective questions. You should focus on “why” people do what they do vs. “what” they do.

Asking the powerful question “why?” forces your employee to think. The opportunity you have now is to get straight to the root cause of whatever the problem is.

If  your employees have failed to meet a goal and you are asking “why” questions rather than “what” or “how” questions, you might get responses like, “I didn’t prioritize my time.” Ahhh, so getting to the root cause  might sound like, “Why didn’t you prioritize your time?” And if the response is that they have too much on their plate,  you must once again ask, “Why?” Perhaps your employee is not able to distinguish between what is and what isn’t a priority? And now the culprit- problem  is revealed.

“Why” should be an easy enough question to ask, after all we asked and asked during our terrible two’s” Why is the sky blue”? “Why can’t I have ice cream?”‘ Why do I have to go to school”?

The answer you got always seemed to be “because”, or “why is a crooked letter and neither you nor I can straighten it”, which when you are two, translates to that person hasn’t got time to discuss it properly right now. 

 I suppose that’s why, “Why” is a question that is not asked enough at work. Asking “why”  can be  a very challenging because it also often associated with sounding critical . It’s not just about the word, it’s about the intention. If your intention is to avoid conflict and promote a change in the situation, try using a more solutions-focused questions. You can still get similar answers by choosing a different way of asking a question.  For example: “tell me about…”, “what do you think are the reason for…”

Effective questions are questions that should be powerful and thought provoking. By considering the questions you ask you can empower your employees. Empowering questions encourage development of your employee  as a thinker and problem solver. The most effective and empowering questions create value in one or more of the following ways:

  1. They create clarity: “Can you explain more about this situation?”
  2. They construct better working relations: Instead of “Did you make your sales goal?” ask, “How have sales been going?”
  3. They help people think analytically and critically: “What are the consequences of going this route?”
  4. They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways: “Why did this work?”
  5. They encourage breakthrough thinking: “Can that be done in any other way?”
  6. They challenge assumptions: “What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”
  7. They create ownership of solutions: “Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”

The ways great leaders help employees learn, cultivate the potential of those around them and enable growth, well, let me quote Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but seeing with new eyes.” Asking “why” can certainly help you and your employees to become better informed. Why? Because I said so.

 Any questions, comments or concerns, please reach out.