“So, what have you got for me today?”
Wish you had a dollar for every time you heard that vague question from your boss? But admit it, on occasion you’ve lobbed one of those inane queries at your own team.
Good leaders always want good answers, and the faster, the better. Problem is, we might not be asking the right questions.
What sounds like a reasonable question — “How are we doing on this project?” – can be either so unclear that no one knows exactly how to answer, or can sound like you’re fishing for what your team thinks you want to hear.
To get the answers we want, we have to frame questions with a clear purpose and a little curiosity.
Every question has an intention behind it, says Marlene Chism, consultant and author of No-Drama Leadership. When we ask questions that are too general, we’re hiding that intention whether we mean to or not.
“Most of us have an intention even if it isn’t clearly stated,” Chism points out. “Before getting curious, it helps to remember that the key to asking a question is to start [with] the right intention.”
In other words—why are we asking?
5 Ways to Frame Curious Questions
You want your team to sense that you’re asking questions because of genuine interest in how they’re doing their work, not because you’re trying to catch them off-guard.
Here are 5 ways to frame your questions to be a more curious leader:
- Avoid ‘statement’ questions that squelch thinking. Issuing a declarative statement followed with a question essentially shuts down others’ viewpoints and can limit creative thinking.
“So since it’s clear our strategy isn’t working, what’s the problem?” for example, takes any response they might have for granted because you’ve assumed that 1) your listeners agree the mentioned strategy isn’t working and 2) they’ve had enough time to think about why.
Get employees thinking on their own by rephrasing: “It seems our strategy is falling short. Any ideas of what we can do better?”
- Ask more questions that begin with “why” and “how.” With these questions, you’re indicating that you’re curious about what the other person thinks or knows: “Why do you feel your approach would make our idea work better?” It gives the person a chance to explain and own the answer.
If you really want an in-depth answer, avoid questions like these if you don’t have time to hear the person out, so you don’t cut their thoughts short.
- Ask probing questions for hidden insights. These questions are effective when addressing problems or conflicts, because they help defuse emotional reactions. Rather than blustering, “How did this happen?!” a focus on getting to the root of a crisis shows you’re thinking ahead for a resolution.
Questions can be general: “What do you think caused the problem?”, but they’re more effective when they’re more specific: “What in particular could we do to avoid this problem?”
- Avoid questions that insist on an absolute certainty. It’s OK to accept a little ambiguity if you get more context in an answer.
Say you want to check on the status of a project. If you ask, “Will I have your report on my desk on Friday morning?” you force the answer “yes” or “no” without getting any other information.
Instead, ask “How is the project kick-off going? Do you think you can have a report to me by Friday?”
This opens up the person to say yes or no, but also gives them the opportunity to offer details or an explanation.
- Leave assumptions out of it. This relates to statement questions when we insert our own opinions into a question. We do this mainly when we’re feeling rushed or pressured.
For example: “Since we’re running way behind schedule on the roll-out, and it’s not close to being complete, should we delay it by a few weeks?”
The question sounds like a decision, so no one wants to argue or give a more thorough answer—you’ve made up your mind!
Decide if you genuinely want employee input before you make a final decision. Get the right information from your team with a series of questions like this:
“I’m told we’re running behind on the roll-out. Is this true?”
“Can you give me a ballpark figure on how close is it to being complete?”
“So would a delay of two weeks give us enough time?”
Good leaders want intelligent, informed answers from their employees. Asking the right questions is a proven way to get them.