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Questions – the main tool for managers

Most of you have probably heard in one way or another about “coaching.” Want to achieve more – find a coach; want to realize your inner potential – find a coach... If you search for the word “coach” on google, you’ll get a lot of links to various coaching articles. And you can find so many different coaches: a life coach, career coach, business coach, and so on... I was somewhat intrigued by the term “manager as coach” as it is directly connected with my job.

Most of you have probably heard in one way or another about “coaching.” Want to achieve more – find a coach; want to realize your inner potential – find a coach... If you search for the word “coach” on google, you’ll get a lot of links to various coaching articles. And you can find so many different coaches: a life coach, career coach, business coach, and so on... I was somewhat intrigued by the term “manager as coach” as it is directly connected with my job.

And I started studying coaching in that direction. I began using many approaches and ideas related to coaching in my daily work. Some have worked out, some have not. But the thing that helps me most is the ability to ask the right questions. It’s what I’m going to share with you today.

We can all ask questions. What could be easier? As we were taught at school, there are open questions and closed question. It’s better to ask open questions if you want to get more information about a person. Active listening is another thing that we should learn - that is the ability to ask questions and nod your head. It is quite simple, just use it. But that’s not all. There are a great deal of issues related to psychology, NLP, and memory that are covered by coaching. But we are not going to deep dive into coaching now. Let’s focus on the aspect of asking questions correctly.

And I propose to start from understanding the different types of questions – not just opened or closed.

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Questions for finding out more begin with: What? Where? When? How? In what way? These questions are used to encourage people to think harder and retrieve information - what they saw, what colors, what sounds, and what feelings they had.

Questions to encourage people to think about issues: Why? What for? Using these kind of questions, you activate another part of the brain which is responsible for analyzing, comparing and making inferences. The person starts deliberating, choosing a solution, and summarizing. Such questions are good after you asked questions regarding the new material, i.e. when it is already available to deal with. If you start from these questions right away, the first reaction will be a defensive one. Remember questions like, “Why did you do that?” – the type of questions your parents, teacher, or even managers asked you. And there it is. A deadlock... You start thinking defensively, in one direction only – how to talk your way out... Therefore, I’d recommend asking these questions after you uncover and receive enough information. Especially in situations where you want to get corrective feedback.

When you’re just beginning using questions correctly, you feel it’s difficult to carry on a conversation. And from the outside it looks as if you’re learning to speak. Just like in the case of any young shop assistant who has read a lot of books on sales, the use of certain techniques is so obvious that it offends the eye and ear of even an ignorant shopper… But some time later you start doing it easily and effortlessly, building the conversation as you need, instilling confidence in your employees, and encouraging them to find efficient solutions...

Let’s go through questions that will help you take a fresh look at the management process.


Questions used to manage subordinates

Without looking into various situations which a manager may face, I suggest to focus on the following three: setting, correcting, and checking a task.

Setting a task

Here we focus on non-standard tasks, because in the case of standard tasks that an employee has performed many times, clarifying questions might be perceived as showing distrust. Yet in the case of tasks that are new for an employee, such questions would be quite appropriate. Let's recall the first steps of delegating. First, you should make sure that the employee understands what is expected from him/her and what is to be done. Then make sure that the employee knows how to do it (has sufficient skills).

  1. Do you understand the task?
  2. What do you have at your disposal for solving the task?
  3. How will you do it?
  4. What difficulties do you see in the task?
  5. Whose help will you need?
  6. How much time will it take?
  7. What other questions have we not discussed yet?
  8. How will you see that you have achieved some result?
  9. What will be an acceptable result for you?
  10. What quality criteria do you want to set for the task?

This set of questions might seem large and excessive. Well, I have tried to account for all possible situations that may occur while setting tasks. You may have noted that I ask the employee how they will consider that everything is done correctly and with high quality. In other words, I do not set quality criteria myself, but nudge the employee towards making a decision about the quality level that he/she will be able to achieve. If they have any doubts, they will ask a clarifying question to me. If I feel that the proposed quality criteria are below my expectations, I can ask some more questions to find out why it is so. For example, “What impacts the quality? What ways of improving the quality do you see?” And finally, “Why do you think this quality level will be sufficient?”

I want to warn you against one mistake. Don’t ask the question “Is everything clear?” Actually, it implies two answers: “Yes” and “Nothing is clear at all.” Neither answer says anything to you. The first answer gives you a false feeling that the employee understands the task exactly in the same way as you. It’s impossible by definition unless it is a standard task. When nothing is clear for your employee, it means he/she is unsure how to do the task correctly. This lack of confidence (once pronounced) gains traction... And then you should not only find out what is exactly unclear but also try to increase the employee’s confidence.

Control in the process of performing the task

  1. What has been done already?
  2. What progress has been achieved?
  3. What have you done by now?
  4. What difficulties do you have?
  5. Who can help you?
  6. What kind of help do you need from me?
  7. Do you see any other ways of solving the task?
  8. How has the estimated time changed?

Again, the list of questions is rather big, and you need to learn how to select those that will help in a certain specific situation.

In the second part of our article we will continue to look at how questions can help us as managers.

Vadim Kachurovsky 

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