Ask Good Questions and Make Your Staff Stronger

Good questions are the only answer for managers who want more engaged, confident and productive employees.

Here’s a thought-provoking question that managers should ponder: Do you typically ask good questions?

Odds are that you may not even know how to answer that question, but that doesn’t mean you’re dumb. If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t even given the subject much thought.

But here’s the unvarnished truth: Asking good questions is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to build employees’ confidence and increase their sense of engagement at work.

Moreover, asking the right questions often generates great ideas that could improve processes and lead to better productivity and efficiency, increased profitability and improved customer satisfaction, says Gary Cohen, the author of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.

“My research shows that very few people are consciously competent about asking the right questions,” notes Cohen, the founder of CO2 Partners (, a consulting firm that specializes in coaching executives and creating more engaged and high-performance workplaces. “And it’s a very underrated skill because most people think it’s just too obvious for consideration.

“But in today’s workplace, the level and speed of change is so rapid and the complexity of our systems is so great … that the only way for leaders to handle it all is by asking good questions,” he adds.

Some additional food for thought: True leadership is all about allowing others to flourish, not just the managers. “It really takes humility to say, ‘It’s not about me, it’s about someone else,’” Cohen says. “That’s a very successful form of leadership.

“You have to change your mindset from thinking you always know the answers to conceding that you don’t know the answers,” he continues. “Or that you think you might know the answers, but there’s also a possibility that someone else knows more. You don’t ask questions to play a game with someone to get the answers you want to hear. You legitimately ask the question so the employee can self-discover the answer.”

That’s a difficult philosophy for many managers to embrace because they take great pride in always having the right answers to solve problems. Moreover, many businesses and organizations create corporate cultures in which leaders are lionized and revered for this ability and, as such, they’re expected to have all the right answers. “We like our heroes — our icons,” Cohen notes. “They seem infallible because they tell instead of ask. But it’s an odd dichotomy because while we like to watch leaders like that, we don’t want to work like that.

We’re all waiting to be asked, not told.”

Ask, don’t tell

When managers ask their employees for help in solving problems instead of just telling them what to do, the results can be game changing. The first benefit is that employees feel more empowered and trusted, plus they’re more accountable for the final results. Moreover, they’ll also feel more open-minded about change, Cohen points out.

“If you tell someone what to do, there’s usually resistance,” he explains. “But if you ask someone how we should go about doing something, they’re going to take their own path — and people who do that are way better employees. We need to give employees more autonomy by asking them the right questions.”

Furthermore, employees usually have good insights on where a company should be going and how that could be accomplished — if only someone would just ask them.

“When I survey audiences (at speaking engagements), 97 percent of employees say they prefer to be asked rather than told, but about 75 percent of them say they’ve never been asked,” Cohen says. “So my question is, given those statistics, why are managers telling people what to do 75 percent of the time? I once did a national survey and found that 37 percent of people say their boss seldom or never asks what their thoughts are about various things. That’s unreal to me.”

There’s another bonus to asking, not telling: Employees tend to like their managers more when they do the former, not the latter, which in turn ratchets up engagement and productivity. Plus, if those employees get promoted, they’re more likely to manage employees with an ask-don’t-tell mentality, which has a very beneficial trickle-down effect, Cohen points out.

What’s the right question?

So you’re ready to change your ways — but where to start? First, it’s important to ask open-ended questions that provoke more than just yes or no answers. “If you ask only one-directional type questions, you’re only going to get that kind of feedback in return,” Cohen says.

It’s also important to avoid leading questions that appear to steer the person to a specific answer, which defeats the whole purpose of tapping that person’s creativity and expertise in the first place. Instead, people should always ask what Cohen calls GPS questions, an acronym that stands for goal, position and strategy.

Goal questions are aimed at figuring out what a team is trying to accomplish. Position questions try to determine where things stand right now, because context is critical. These questions can center, for instance, on who needs to be involved, what resources are available, what’s been tried before and what worked and didn’t work. Last but not least, strategy questions should get employees thinking about how the team will accomplish the goal. These questions should be forward-looking and action-oriented, Cohen says.

Another thing to consider: Avoid judgment and evaluative questions, which come off as criticism. A good example is asking someone why they did a particular job the way they did (as in, “Why did you use that nozzle to clean the pipe?”). “Those kinds of questions sound like an evaluation of you in past orientation, as opposed to future- or direction-oriented questions,” he explains.

Personal discipline

Breaking old habits and asking questions instead of always directing people requires persistence and discipline. “But if you change your worldview from telling to asking, you instantly become a better leader,” Cohen asserts.

Of course, you have to trust the person to whom you pose the question or you won’t trust the answer. That’s very difficult for managers who generally don’t trust people, Cohen notes.

In addition, the corollary to asking the right questions is that you also must listen effectively to the answers with an open mind. And what if an employee provides a clearly wrong answer to a question? “Then you have to think about questions you can ask that will help them self-identify the errors,” he says. “They need to think about it so the error becomes clear to them.”

In the end, managers need to ask themselves if they want employees who come to work every morning and unthinkingly perform tasks as assigned, or employees who are engaged, feel valued and contribute innovative ideas. “There’s a cost to having employees who only follow what you tell them to do — the cost of low morale, poor engagement, impeding employees’ development and lack of accountability,” he points out. “It’s much better to have employees who are thinkers and can figure things out. Greatness happens when you ask.”


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