My questions to my staff at work are backfiring - what do I do?

Dear Backfiring,

As a leader, you want and need to understand what’s happening at your company. You also strive to help others do the right thing with honest intentions.

If your questions are backfiring, you are probably experiencing the following:

  • When you ask about results, you find people getting upset.

  • As you’re trying to troubleshoot a problem, people become defensive.

  • When you’re trying to explore a solution you think would help, people withdraw and shut down.

The old adage “There’s no such thing as a bad question” might feel like a slap in the face.

Rather than good or bad questions, we like to think of questions as unhelpful or helpful.

Some questions can help everyone get to a good outcome. Others do the opposite.

So let’s start with three important outcomes effective teams and team members need. Then we’ll cover a few common and well-intended yet questions which often work against the desired outcomes, and finally share some questions which can be more helpful.

How does that sound to you?

1. Successful Teams Benefit from Psychological Safety

A Google study of hundreds of their teams found the most important success factor is psychological safety - the ability for people to be able to share their perspective without fear of judgment or repercussions. It’s not just sharing ideas, it’s knowing thoughts, ideas, and concerns are being heard and are valued - even if they contradict leadership’s perspective.

The challenge here is most leaders ask questions to understand what’s happening starting with “Why?”

In an environment of deep trust, shared willingness, and need, “Why?” questions can work well. However, our experience is most people are triggered with some amount of shame or inadequacy when asked even a single “Why did this happen?” - the exact opposite of psychological safety.

Get creative and ask your question without a why to reinforce safety

Maybe it’s because most people hear “Why?” as a demand to justify behavior or action. Maybe it’s because adults often use “Why?” as a way to ensure a child will learn their lesson and not do it again. Regardless, what we find works better is asking helpful questions to enable the other person to explore their own thinking and deepen their understanding through asking more helpful questions.

2. Successful Teams Benefit from Clear Understanding

Are you doing most to all of the thinking when you ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no?

Yeah, I thought so, too.

Luckily, it’s a simple shift to change closed-ended yes/no questions to questions inspiring greater understanding in both you and the person being asked.

Start your questions with “What…” or “How…” or “How much…”

Here are some examples of unhelpful questions followed by a couple alternatives:

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  • Don’t you agree?

    • What do you agree with? What don’t you agree with?

    • How much do you agree?

  • Questions ending in “..., right?”

    • What factors do you think are important here?

    • What results do you want to avoid?

  • Help me understand / I’m curious about...? (this is sneaky validation of your own thinking)

    • What do you think we need to consider?

    • I’m sure you had a good reason for your decision - what did you hope would happen? How did it go?

While “What the heck were you thinking?” or “How could you ever do such a thing?” fit the tip, these questions aren’t helpful because they aren’t really improving the understanding of the other person. Another related success tip to help improve others’ understanding is:

Reduce pressure of getting “the best” answer to get better responses

Humans like us can experience mental lock-up when asked “What’s the most important…” “What’s the single best…” “What’s the worst…” whatever. We frantically sort through all the possibilities, trying to evaluate some choices against all the others. Meanwhile, pressure builds to have one, most right answer.

As a questioner, we assume asking for the best, worst, etc. helps the person being questioned choose what’s most important. These qualifiers often have the opposite effect.

Instead, if you increase correct answers to your question, you’ll reduce lock-up and encourage more understanding of the possibilities that will ultimately serve best. Some unhelpful questions with more helpful re-frames:

  • What’s the best solution here?

    • What solutions have you thought of?

    • What are some solutions we could try?

  • What are the top three reasons for this?

    • What are a few reasons for this?

    • What’s your thinking about how this occurred?

Ultimately, as leaders we want people to gain clear understanding to then inspire ownership of the challenge and of the solution they implement.

3. Successful Teams Benefit from Increased Ownership

Effective leaders grow people and prevent future problems by encouraging others to own both the challenges they face and the solutions they implement.

If ownership sounds lofty and unrealistic, reflect for just a moment on how much you own solutions when someone else hands them to you? In your own journey, how much did you grow when others helped you own both problems and the solutions?

It’s so tempting to save time by offering your experience and expert thinking. However, if your goal is to support others’ thinking and ownership of the solutions, try some of these questions instead:

  • What does good look like?

  • What could get in the way of this being successful?

  • How could you prevent that?

  • Who could help you with this? How much help would be helpful?

  • What support would you ask of me to make this work?

  • When would you like to get together again?

Grow others by helping them develop and implement their own solutions

I hope you see how shifting the way you ask questions can increase psychological safety, understanding, and ownership in others. This method is relatively simple, yet challenging to implement. Our challenge to you is to give the adjustments a try.

Good luck - and happy question asking!

P.S. -We’re ready to have a real, two-way conversation with you about helpful questions. When would work for you?

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Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.