by Peter E. Friedes
How often do you ask your employees what they think?
Effective managers are good “askers.” You ask employees for their observations and suggestions. You ask for their reactions to your ideas and proposed solutions to problems. You re-ask when you don’t completely understand an employee’s statement. (Some managers think asking for clarification is a sign of weakness. It’s not.) You resist the temptation to react to the initial things people say, and instead ask questions. “What led you to that idea? What are the pros and cons you have identified?”
Seems easy, but are you really doing it?
Like the students in Lake Wobegon, most managers think their asking skills are above average. Asking questions doesn’t seem that difficult. Some managers do not even view it as a separate skill set; they lump it into the category of “active listening.” I would argue that it is a distinct skill and often not done well.
Consider this example: An employee comes to you with a suggestion that you know you don’t like. What do you do?
Many managers would immediately respond with why they don’t like the suggestion or why they don’t think it’s workable (with various degrees of niceness). Few would ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” The employee’s suggestion may simply be a less-than-ideal solution to a very real problem. By asking questions, instead of immediately volunteering your opinion, you may be able to say, “I agree with your assessment of the problem, but not the suggested solution. Let’s see if we can find another alternative to solve this problem.”
Asking can lead to learning about a problem you didn’t know about before.
Asking is enabling, telling is limiting, and ignoring is irritating.
The key to good asking is believing your employees have information, knowledge, and ideas (that you don’t have) that can help you achieve your objectives. If a manager believes this, he or she will show it in tone, words, and behavior by asking and re-asking.
If a manager doesn’t believe this, it will also show in tone, words, and behavior and convey (at best) a lack of interest in involving employees or (at worst) a sense that you view employees as inferior thinkers. Self-absorbed managers don’t care what employees think. They destroy morale, retard innovation, and block productivity improvements. If you pull these managers aside and point out the damage, they are unlikely to change, because they don’t believe they are causing the problem.
Which type of manager do you want to be? One who believes you have all the answers or one who asks questions? If you think you are not asking enough, you are probably right. It’s easy to let deadlines, meetings, and to-do lists get in the way. And another day passes without seeking employee input. But working to improve this skill can significantly enhance your career as a manager.
Start by increasing the frequency of your “elaborative asking”—asking for clarity when a response is unclear and asking for more details when a response isn’t thorough. Once your employees know you are really interested and will continue to ask for clarity, they will come prepared to be more articulate the next time they interact with you.
Master the art of asking and you will enrich your understanding of employees, the challenges they face, and their ideas for meeting those challenges. Workers will sense that you care about what they have to say, and that will lead to higher employee engagement and stronger business results.
About Peter E. Friedes
Retired CEO, Hewitt Associates. Co-founder, Managing People Better, LLC—a management research firm/think tank. Avid competitive golfer (when my back cooperates). Connect with Peter on his Lead Change or Twitter profiles.