Asking the right questions can get your team to find their own answers
If you ever struggle with feeling like you’re doing your team’s thinking for them, or don’t have time to do your own work, then your team needs help with problem-solving. As a leader, you’re in a unique position to help them in specific ways no one else can.
Other signals include team members repeatedly making the same errors or frequently saying “I don’t know” when you ask about next steps. All of these are indications to look for when you ask your team “How can I help?”
Some managers respond to these signals one of two ways: they get upset or they dive in to “help” by offering solutions. Unfortunately, neither response gets you what you want: more time for your work, and more responsibility from your team.
On the one hand, if you get upset and chastise your team for bothering you, they will stop bothering you. They’ll also resent you and begin dragging their feet rather than solving problems that need attention. On the other hand, if you play the hero and jump in with answers, the immediate problems get solved and work continues. But next time an issue comes up, your team still can’t figure it out for themselves and, worse, you’ve now taught them that if things get difficult, you’ll just figure it out for them.
What your team really needs from you in these moments are your questions. Yes, questions.
Asking good questions is critical to freeing up your own time and increasing your team’s ability to think and solve problems without you. A good question or two can quickly move the conversation back to the employee owning the problem and analyzing potential solutions — but they do have to be good questions.
Poor questions look to place blame, dwell on failure: Who screwed up? Why did you do that? What were you thinking?
In contrast, healthy questions focus on learning and on the future to generate ideas and solutions: What is your goal? What did you try? What happened? What would you do next time?
Your staff has the basic skills, training and materials they need to do their jobs, so these conversations shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. For a complex project, it might take the time required to drink a cup of coffee (but it shouldn’t take much longer than that).
But, what happens when the answer to one of your questions is the dreaded, “I don’t know”? It can mean many things, but rarely does it mean the person has zero thoughts about the issue.
Often, “I don’t know” translates to: I’m uncertain; I don’t want to commit before I know where you stand; I haven’t thought about it yet; or I’m scared about getting it wrong.
Your job as a leader is to continue the dialogue — ease your employees through their anxiety and train their brains to engage. This is where the special bonus question comes in. When a team member says, “I don’t know,” resist the urge to jump in and supply the answer.
Instead, with one question you can re-engage them in the conversation by asking: “What might you do if you did know?”
It’s like magic. The person who was stymied two seconds ago will start to share ideas (usually good ones), brainstorm solutions and move on as if they were never stuck. It’s amazing, and hard to believe until you try it.
This question works because it addresses the source of the person’s “I don’t know.” If your employees were anxious or fearful, it takes the pressure off by creating a hypothetical situation: “If you did know …” Now that they don’t have to be certain or look for your approval, they’re free to share whatever they might have been thinking.
If they hadn’t thought about the issue or didn’t want to think about it, you’ve lowered the perceived amount of thought-energy they must expend. You’re not asking for a thesis on the subject, just a conversation.
Our brains can do amazing work when we remove the emotional blocks. When you do this for your team, you train their brains to engage, to push through their ordinary blocks and increase their performance.
Ultimately, they will be able to have these conversations with themselves and will only need to bring the very serious issues to you. n
David M. Dye works with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done. He is a former executive, elected official and lead trailblazer of the leadership-consulting firm, Trailblaze, Inc. His latest book, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say, is available now at Amazon.com. You can connect with David on Twitter @davidmdye or at www.trailblazeinc.com.