- May 01, 1995, Davis, Arthur G.
Like it or not, virtually every action or nonacntion a manger takes will be interpreted by employees is some way. Therefore, even the way managers ask question determines the level of trust employees feel.
I often like to recall an experience I had at a recent talk to a group of executives during which I asked the audience, "How many of you here are involved in a change situation right now?"
Of course, the hands went up. So then I asked, "How many of you are pleased with the progress?" There were almost no hands up.
The reason so many quality programs are failing is that management isn't addressing the real issues. The traditional approach to quality improvement is to bring people in and to try to teach them to improve their skills.
But skill isn't the issue. The real issue is how well they have bought into what needs to be done.
I've noticed time and time again with organizations that I've worked with that dramatic improvements are obtained, not by teaching people new skills, but by asking them different kinds of questions--questions that create ownership for the improvements you want.
Unbeknownst to a manager, many of questions are disempowering.
Like it or not, virtually every action or nonaction a manager takes will be interpreted by employees in some way.
Therefore, even the way managers ask questions determines the level of support and trust employees feel. For instance, when a manager asks, "Why are you behind schedule?", "What's the problem on this project?" or "Why did you do that?" the response is likely to be defensive.
These are ineffective questions because they focus on the negative--on what's wrong, on problems, and on who is to blame.
And, when people get in a defensive mode, their energy gets locked up in protecting themselves instead of in moving forward.
Effective questions, on the other hand, are the ultimate empowerment tools. They point to accomplishments and to what people are doing that is working. They energize people. They, nurture creativity. They build trust.
Here are examples of effective questions: How do you feel about this project so far? What have you accomplished that you're pleased with? What kind of support do you need to assure success?
Most important, an effective question says to people, "You already have the answers, please tell me what they are."
Here are some guidelines for better questions:
 Make your questions open ended. Avoid "yes" and "no" questions. Don't ask, "Do you like your job?" Instead ask, "What aspects of your job do you like and which don't you like?"
 Be forward focused. Direct people's energy to "What do we need to do to get where we want to be?" rather than, "What's wrong with where we are, and who's to blame?"
 Ask "what" or "how," not "why." Although "why" questions may seem to get to the heart of the matter, they tend to make people feel they have to justify their actions. "What was the process you went through to make that decision?" is a better question than, "Why did you do that?"
 Use questions to help people. Asking questions instead of telling people what to do allows them to own the answers. Behind all of your questions should be the guiding principle, "How can I help this person gain more clarity in the process of answering this question?" Don't think, "How can I get this person to do what I want?"
 Understand that there are no wrong answers. Ask people, "What do you think we should do?" and "How do you feel about doing it this way?"
Respect people by reserving judgment Accept that every answer is right from the perspective of the person who is answering.
 Give people credit for knowing the answers, whether they do or not. In the typical business environment, many managers assume people don't have the answers. Assume they do. It may surprise you to find they know more than you think.
 Be open and willing to hear the answers. Even if you think you know what the answer will be, be open to receiving a different one. If you've already decided the solution, you're not open, so don't bother asking the question.
 Listen. We tend to listen selectively while our minds race to the next question we want to ask. Stop. Listen completely to what someone is saying before moving on.
 Put your questions in context. If suspicion is high between managers and employees, help people understand that you're not out to get them.
For example, if you're trying to ascertain the status of an ongoing project, ask, "I'm trying to get an update of where we stand with this project. How's it going for you?"
Arthur G. Davis is principal of A.G. Davis & Associates, a management consultancy in Chicago, IL, specializing in quality and productivity intervention.