“A prudent question is one half of wisdom” (Francis Bacon, Sr.)

Many employees have become so used to receiving instructions – their respective bosses telling them what to do – that they have stopped thinking as a result. They perform the functions, but their hearts and minds are not part of their actions. They go through the motions, process each working day as required, but don’t really feel valued or a significant part of the operation. Lethargy is one of the ensuing results.

Employees should be hired, not just for their hands and feet, but also for their hearts and minds. If company leadership can tap into the thought processes and passion of those that work for them, many new ideas will reach the planning table, discretionary effort will be willingly offered and focus will be exercised in terms of reaching the set targets. “Telling” breaks down morale and creates additional workload for managers – these managers have put themselves in a place where they have to think for everyone and be solution-providers. Replacing “telling” with effective questioning involves employees in meaningful ways and gets them contributing towards the achievement of goals. They become significantly more engaged.

Poor questioning is counter-productive, however, as these questions confuse rather than getting employees thinking in the right direction. When questions are vague, too complex, ambiguous or controlling, employees might question the authenticity of the manager or the intent behind the questions, perhaps starting to perceive hidden agendas or questionable motives. Questions need to have a genuine purpose, be simple, have influence without being controlling and address only one issue at a time. They need to stimulate the thinking processes and draw the best out of everyone. Good questions are specific, clear, simple and straight-forward, for example:

  • What would be a sign that production is improving?
  • What skillset is needed to do the job effectively?
  • Where does your workload feel most manageable?

Some managers have asked me before: “What if I can’t think of my next question? I go blank and get stuck”. Julie Starr (The Coaching Manual, 2003) notes the following remedies:

  1. The manager has lost concentration and the thread of the conversation – be honest, declare what has happened and move on, saying: “I’m really sorry, I lost my concentration – could you please repeat what you just said?”
  2. The manager is genuinely distracted by another thought, idea or insight – be honest and declare what is happening, saying: “I am sorry, but I keep on thinking about what you said earlier with reference to not liking things too easy. Can we go back to that for a while? It may be worth exploring”.
  3. The conversation is leading no-where and seems ‘stuck’ (maybe the energy has gone out of the conversation or the conversation just feels pointless) – be honest again. Say what you are thinking or feeling, for example: “I am feeling that we are stuck now as I don’t know where our conversation is heading – is this still a useful discussion?”

Genuineness on the part of the manager goes a long way to real and meaningful engagement with the employee – all in leadership should practise constructing effective questioning techniques. Questioning is a fine art – if done well, it leads to more constructive interaction between manager and employee, real engagement and the stimulation of results-orientation at work. As Albert Einstein noted: “The important thing is to not stop questioning”.

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