Asking versus Telling

How to get the most out of your team?

As managers and leaders, we are in the business of moving people in the direction of meeting goals, solving problems independently, and reaching their full potential. It is easy to tell people how to solve problems, achieve goals, and where the team is supposed to be headed. But consider how you can ask questions to achieve these very important team competencies? It is a shift in thinking. I can tell you personally that it is a practice that I have incorporated into my life. When given the opportunity, I will ask a question instead of telling a person what I want accomplished. Questions are the way we get our people to think about the very topic we are talking about. If they are thinking, they are learning.

Asking versus Telling

I want you to know that when we are asking questions, it is not from a position of weakness. The question should not be, “Could you please do…….?” When we are in positions to have our teams meet goals and performance standards, ask questions that move them in the intended direction.

Here is a sampling of topics where questions can be used to accomplish your goal.

Unpopular or Mandated Training

One class that I teach with regularity is Workplace Harassment. It is a California State training mandate and employees must attend this training every two years. In most instances where I have taught the class, students enter the class with a sense of dread that they will be “told” what improper conduct is in the workplace along with all the activities they can no longer participate in at work. The expectation level that they will learn something new is low. Questions are the key in connecting with the students and having them learn the concepts of Workplace Harassment. Here are some of the questions I usually ask in each of the classes:

  • Why do we have Workplace Harassment training?
  • How do people want to be treated at work?
  • What happens if we choose to ignore harassment incidents/situations?
  • What role do we each play in preventing workplace harassment?
  • How do everyday actions by an employee become Workplace Harassment?

Asking versus TellingUnpopular Policies or Work Practices

As managers, we are often in a position to implement a policy or work practice that may not be very popular. I have dealt with this issue over my entire career. Implementing unpopular policies that employees are resistive was a common occurrence. Some of the questions I used for accepting change were the following:

  • Why was this policy/change implemented?
    • Employees have to evaluate the reasoning for the change.
  • How did we get here?
  • What responsibility do we have for the proposed change?
  • What are the positive and negative aspects of the policy?
    • Be prepared to address both, but focus on the positive.
  • If you had to implement the change, how would you do it?
    • This places the employee in the position of management and the management perspective. The process of change can be a source of good discussion.
  • If you had to write the policy (which created the change), what would it look like?
    • Many times, the employees will write a policy which is very similar to the company’s policy. This a good question to ask.

Difficult or Unmotivated Employee

The questions we ask of this type of employee should occur on a daily basis. Having one conversation will not change an employee. Having ten conversations may not improve an employee.

Remember that the questions should be asked during the regular conversations that you are having with your people. The questions are to create a conversation where the employee sees their contributions and impact on the team. The questions are asked in a subtle manner during everyday discussion.

  • What do you have going on today?
  • How is the project/assignment/task coming along?
    • What have you learned about it?
    • What are some of the roadblocks you’re dealing with?
    • What has been unexpected about it?
    • What is coming along smoothly?
  • What is your goal for the day/hour/shift?
    • How are you going to get it done?
    • Who can you involve in getting it done?
    • What do you need to get it done?
    • How will you know that you’ve done your best?
  • What are the updates on the ___________ project?
    • How do the updates impact the project?
    • What is your part in the project?
    • How will you contribute to the effort?
    • How will you collaborate with others the team to meet the project’s goals?
    • How can the team work with you to meet the project’s goals?

Asking versus TellingDeveloping Rapport with your People

I need to first state that developing a genuine rapport with your people is needed to ask the questions for the situations listed above. Otherwise, your questions will look scripted and fake. I have come to know that most people in the workplace are very good fraud detectors. If they believe that you are only following a script and do not have a genuine interest in them as a person, then you’ll be perceived as a fraud. You can avoid this by caring about your people. Take interest in what they do at work and at home if possible. It is an opportunity to take to them about their favorite subject; themselves.

  • How is it going today?
  • How was your weekend?
  • Anything going on?
  • I like what you did with __________. How did you do it?
  • I have an issue with _________? What do you think? Am I missing something?
  • What do you think about _________? How should we handle it?

These are some very basic questions you can asked to build a working relationship with your team. Most of you develop rapport with your people in a very natural way. But we are all aware of managers and leaders who lack basic conversational skills to build rapport with their teams.

Challenge yourself to move into the direction of “asking” versus “telling.” Develop a working relationship with your people if you need to. Also, improve the working relationships that you currently have. Be genuine in your approach. There are great dividends to be found through asking questions.
What question can you ask to day to build a work relationship or solve a problem?

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Al Cobos is the owner and lead consultant for Dychelon which improves team performance and promotes successful team building. Al has successfully built teams over the past two decades. He has over thirty years of public sector experience in addition to teaching for several universities. His focus is to improve people in their personal and professional lives.