1st February, 2017

A lot of managers get stuck in the trap of talking too much and not engaging with their employees. This is simply a habit that they need to break out of. No one will pause the scene and tell you what you need to do differently. What will simply happen is that employees will silently sit there until you finish. What is really going on here?

What is an open question?

An open question is one that allows (or forces) the other person to provide more than just a one word answer.  This is as opposed to a closed question.  For example:

Open question: How did you go about helping that customer?

Closed question: Did you help the customer?

Why use open questions?

Open questions are incredible powerful.  They are the key to achieving many positive results with your people.

Open questions:

...allow you to properly understand a situation, therefore enabling you to target your feedback and coaching.

...help your employee to think through a problem or situation themselves, therefore assisting them to take accountability for action.

...demonstrate collaboration, therefore building a more positive relationship with your people.

What happens when managers don't use open questions?

It is easy to kid yourself.  The biggest mistake is that managers assume they know what is going on.  They ask questions that lead them to preconceived ideas of what is taking place.  Employees feel they should be quiet and just listen to instructions, hopefully picking up what they are meant to do along the way.  If they haven't quite captured it, surely once they get back to their desks they can figure it out.  What if though...

It is important to remember that there is a power differential that exists between managers and employees.  You may not think that you are big and scary, but sometimes you might come across that way to the person whose livelihood you hold in your hands.  You may think that the onus is on employees to speak up if they have a problem.  Would you say the same thing about your customers?  Is silence from your customers a licence to assume that everything is ok?  Hopefully you don't think this.  The same can be said for your employees.  They are people just like your customers.

Why don't managers use open questions?

The main reason is that it is not a habit to do so.  Also, when you are not using open questions effectively there is no one there letting you know to do so.  It is easier to simply tell your employees what to do.  It is easier to ask closed questions to gain the information you (think you) want faster.   Managers sometimes don't know how to ask the right open questions in the right way and this can sometimes come across as an interrogation.

It is a trap though and will lead to frustration for you and disengagement for your team.  People will learn that they don't have to think so much and you will become annoyed that people are coming to you with solutions.  You will be left wondering what they are thinking.  In the absence of certainty, people think the worst.  If you don't really know what is going on with your team and you see things you don't like, there may be a tendency to think the worst of them.  Consequently, this will influence your behaviour into being less and less engaging.

How to ask good open questions

The first step is to write down some that you think will be useful.  Below are a few examples:

  • How did you go with that meeting with XYZ?
  • What do you think we should do about the ABC process?
  • Why do you think we keep receiving complaints about 123?

It is a good idea to preface an open question so that it doesn't come across as an interrogation.  For example:

"I imagine it must be frustrating hearing the complaints about 123.  I think it's a good idea for us to put our heads together to see if we can come up with a solution.  Why do you think we keep receiving complaints about 123?"

Prefacing open questions is also a really great way to help you (and your team) with not feeling too awkward with your change in approach.  If they understand why you are asking the question, it significantly helps with the comfort level in giving a response.

Finally, it is important not to just end it with your original open question.  Asking good follow up questions is just as important.  For example:

"Ok, so you say the complaints about 123 tend to happen almost always towards the end of the day.  What are some things that take place late in the day that could relate to this?"

Where to next?

I hope this has been useful for you and I would love to chat with you further about this topic.  Like many things, the concept is simple but the key is execution.  If you would like to discuss how we can help you to implement this effectively please get in touch!

Comments are closed.