As managers, we often forget that we are (the biggest) part of the problem..

Do your employees ask you questions you feel they should know the answer to? Do they seem to lack creativity and assertiveness? You might be able to fix this problem with a slight tweak in your own communication.

Admit it, we all make this mistake: when asked a question we start to answer. But do we fully understand the other person’s needs and do we have enough context to give the best possible answer? Often, we think we are helping by shining our light on a matter, but in reality we are complicating things. In my experience, more than half the times the best reply is a counter-question.

Any time anybody asks you a question, I suggest we assume that the real question might not (completely) be asked in first instance. There are many things holding people back from saying what they want to say, many of which on an unconscious level. So, assume that in most cases, it is necessary to (help) formulate the actual need. People need to be helped to ask the right question. Let’s not assume we know what the other person needs without interacting and taking a good look before giving answers.

Apply the clarifying counter question

  • To the person who seems to have the answer he/she is seeking (this person is looking for validation, confirmation and confidence): “what do you suggest? .. okay, go for it!”
  • When you are unsure whether this person needs a detailed suggestion, a general sense of direction or just a listening ear: “what can I do to help you?”
  • When the person seems stressed, losing grip or slightly frantic: “let’s take a step back, how are things going?
  • When you realise that you don’t have the context needed to give the right (kind of) answer: “sorry, can you give me some more background information on that subject?”
  • When the person seems to be struggling about what question to ask: “help me out, do you have multiple things to discuss or are you having trouble formulating the right question?”

Influencing future behaviour

More importantly than giving the right answer, what has even more impact is the pattern you are creating by how you approach questions. Our efforts create patterns and precedents that affect individuals around us. Here is an example:

Jenny comes up to you and asks: should we.. (fill in jargon) .. ?

Let’s assume you have an opinion on the matter. It would be very easy to tell Jenny what to do, how to do it and who to involve, right? Here are two scenario’s and their implications. Either way, your actions will prime Jenny for future behaviour.

  1. You give Jenny detailed instructions based on her question
    • Tell her what to do and next time she will feel she needs your instructions or approval
  2. You ask Jenny what she thinks is the best thing to do and if her suggestion is feasible you say: go for it!
    • Ask for her opinion and give her affirmation and she will feel the freedom and confidence she needs to act on her own in the future

As managers, we are creating patterns every day. And even if you haven’t thought about it, you have been doing it. Of course, junior employees will be looking for answers so we cater to their needs. The trick is to actively test the waters to find out if they are ready for scenario two. This principle is called situational leadership. If you master the principle of giving less answers, you just might actually be amazed by the human potential around you.

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