Do you know (and use) the best manager skill to lead with leadership?
How to be a good manager? How to be the best leader for your people? What would you answer to a new manager asking you about your best tip or advice to manage a team? Would you struggle to find the best management skill? Would you start sharing a list of advice and tips to be the best manager and leader or would you come with a single and powerful tip for new managers?
The best skill for managers and leaders: the art of questioning
You can find many articles, books and studies to help you improve your skills as a manager and leader. I'm working with managers from very different backgrounds, however, my main advice is always the same: STOP TELLING, START ASKING.
Ask questions to your talents instead of telling them what to do, what to think, what is wrong, what is right.
When you tell your team members what to do:
They might listen and end up doing the right thing.
But they might also:
Don't get your motivations
When you tell your team members what to do, you expose yourself. You then become the bully, the bad guy, the cop, the boss. By telling your team members what to do, you don’t empower them, you don’t help them grow and find their solutions. When a team member comes to you with a question, you think that you are doing the best thing you can by answering this question, but you are not. When answering the question you reduce the learning opportunity for your team member and you miss a chance to give this talent autonomy in solving such situations. In the long run, you are wasting both your time and your talent’s as he or she will keep coming to you with similar questions. So, next time a team member is asking you a question, try this simple technique, ask him or her the question back: “what do you think? What would you do? What are your ideas?”. You will be surprised to realise that most of the time they already have the answer, and if they don’t, guide them into finding those answers. By doing so, they will less and less need your approval on similar occasions.
When you ask the right questions to your team members:
You empower them,
They think by themself,
They realise things,
This is how to manage with leadership! This is the key to empower your team members. By asking questions, you move your team members from a passive listening role to an active and creative one. We can all take genuine pride in a job well done, giving us the confidence to accomplish more and more. It seems easy and it is. You only need to strengthen your art of questioning.
Develop the art of questioning
When asking questions, you will want to watch your tone, the context, your intonation, and your body language while ensuring a neutral and non-judgmental voice. Watch yourself and be sure to stay away from impatience and sarcasm or you will get the opposite result. You can learn more about body language in this other article.
The different question styles
There are many types of questions that can be used for questioning techniques. The most common question styles are:
Ask open questions to invite team members to elaborate and explain their answers. Open questions are the best way to initiate a conversation before going to details and specifics. Use open questions to ask your team members to explain what happened at a situation or place, to ask why it happened or to ask for details of an incident. Open questions will help you create a real conversation that empowers your team members. This type of question shows respect and demonstrates to your team members that you care. Open questions are the most effective way to get an explanation of needs, thoughts, ideas, and feedback. Open questions usually start with “what, why, how, describe, explain, where, which, when”.
Some examples are:
"What happened with the client last time you met with him?"
"How did you get to this result?"
"Could you please describe your needs and current situation?"
"What do you think about this discussion from the morning meeting?"
Funnel questions are the best type of questions to follow open questions. Once you have a better understanding of a situation, you can use funnel questions to better guide your team member’s answers. If you think of the shape of a funnel, that’s how funnel questions work. You start with wide and general open questions before progressively narrowing your questions down to closed ones. You could also do the opposite and start with closed questions before asking open ones. This technique helps you get more or less developed answers. Be sure to make it conversational; you don’t want to sound like a police officer or a journalist throwing too many questions on your team member.
An example of a series of funnel questions is:
“How was it to work on this project?”
“What did you like the most about it?
“Is Alan a great project leader?”
“Did you learn a lot from your collaboration with Alan?”
“What is the most important thing you have learned with Alan?”
If we look at the definition of clarification, it is a form of reflection that seeks to eliminate ambiguity, confusion or misunderstanding. This is exactly the goal of clarifying questions: verifying information. You can use clarifying questions any time during the discussion or at the end, once the talk is over, to confirm understanding.
Some examples of clarifying questions are:
"Do we agree that you can realise this task before 12 pm today?"
"Is it right to think that you will take the lead during the team meeting next Monday?"
"Just to confirm; is Alan in charge with the project or are you still the principal referent?"
"Can we confirm that this software will allow us to do this and that?"
Closed questions invite a short and focused answer. It is not common to start a discussion with closed questions. You will use closed questions towards the end of the chat to test if a team member has understood certain explanations, policies, procedures, rules, regulations or the general discussion. You will also use closed questions for agreements or disagreements. Closed questions are not empowering your team members and can be seen as a trap in certain situations, use them carefully and watch your tone of voice. Answers to closed questions can often be either right or wrong, yes or no, this or that.
Some examples of closed questions are:
"Do we agree on this matter?"
"Are you happy with the solution that we provided?"
"Are you ready for your next presentation?"
"Do you understand the reasons behind this decision?"
Use probing questions to gain clarification and encourage your team members to tell you more information about a subject or to clarify doubts or misunderstandings. You can ask team members to share examples and specific data to answer your probing questions. Those questions usually start with “why, what, who, where, when, how, how much”.
Some examples of probing questions are:
“What do you need from me to complete this task?”
“Why do you need this information for and how are you going to use it?”
“When will the final result be shared with the client?”
“How do we know if the provided solution is the right one?”
Leading questions are used to lead your team members in a specific direction. Use leading questions carefully as they can seem to be manipulative with some respondents feeling obliged to follow your lead. I remember that my mother was pretty good at leading questions when I was a kid. “At least you haven’t done that, it’s good. Because you haven’t done that, right?” What do you want me to answer? If I said “Yes, I did”, I knew my mum would be disappointed in me. It felt easier then, and safer, to initiate a lie and to respond, “No mum, I haven’t”. In the workplace, you might encounter leading questions such as: ‘This looks like the wrong solution, don’t you think?’, or ‘did you enjoy working with this person?’; in both situations, coming with a negative answer doesn’t look like an option.
Some examples of leading questions are:
“Alan should have come to us with this issue, don’t you think?”
“This option isn’t great, don’t you agree?”
“It should be more engaging, am I right?”
“This project is more appropriate for you, isn’t it?”
Rhetorical questions could seem similar to leading questions, however, rhetorical questions don’t require an answer when leading ones do. Rhetorical questions are used to keep the listener engaged and to promote thought. Rhetorical questions are more statements phrased in question form. Use rhetorical questions to help your team members think, be creative and come up with ideas.
Some examples of rhetorical questions are:
“This is amazing, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t Alan the best mediator?”
“Don’t we have the best office to work from?”
“Isn’t this presentation the best one so far?”
From now on, every time you are about to answer a question from your team members’ simply remember this article and ask them the question back. The art of questioning will allow you to develop your team’s performance and boost their effectiveness and results. Stop telling and start asking!
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