I remember my very first day at school. It sticks in the memory because the teacher asked a whole bunch of questions and a couple of us were able to answer them all correctly.
In those days there was none of this “taking part is important” stuff. If you got the right answer you could go home at the end of the day and tell your parents how you’d impressed the class teacher.
Meanwhile the other 28 children in the class could switch off while someone else did the thinking…
Questions employees ask managers
You’re busy, it’s been a long day and another team member is asking for guidance or help. Is answering your team’s questions a good thing to do or not? And what’s the alternative?
Doesn’t it save you time to jump straight to the answer?
Undoubtedly in that moment it does. If you’ve been around the block more than once, the chances are (or the risk is!) you don’t even have to really tune in to satisfy the request and get on with your bulging Inbox.
So it saves on grey matter too. Yours at least. However, the person doing the asking inevitably sacrifices some of their own brain cells for being in receipt of those readily-given instructions.
Can providing answers hinder team performance?
Might a reliance on you create an absence of thinking or problem solving?
Could there be management paralysis next time you’re absent, whether that’s buying tea-bags, resolving invoice queries or sorting deliveries? Quite possibly.
What if that developed into a willingness to blame the owner of the instruction when something goes pear-shaped? Oops. That’s YOU getting the blame, by the way.
What’s the broader impact of providing answers?
In the blink of an eye it also becomes your culture. It’s not written down anywhere. Not printed onto posters on your notice board, within your sales process and definitely not in your employee handbook: but your culture nonetheless.
Your people learn that you’ll do the thinking and the telling if they do the asking. They learn that there’s no need to show up having considered a potential solution, because you’ll do that on their behalf.
You’ve unintentionally become their teacher. Maybe the age gap isn’t there and you might not have chalk marks on your trousers. But you’re offering all of the business wisdom and answers they need. Just by asking.
Does that really save you time? No. Because over time you become the sole provider of answers, and the queue at your desk just gets longer.
What’s the cost of providing answers?
It comes in many currencies.
No one in your team can identify what’s in your head and what informed your answer. So “thinking for yourself” is unlikely to show up any time soon in your team.
Unless you explain what lies behind your thinking, all they have is an instruction to execute. They gain no judgement or insight from what they receive. It’s a missed opportunity for team development.
Many business owners and team managers worry about their immediate team. They’ll often have concerns about whether their team are willing to step up and make appropriate and informed decisions about clients, financials and business processes.
Whether it’s a customer problem, a cashflow issue, or just worries about whether sales are talking to marketing. What often sits behind all of this is your employee’s ability to think things through logically and effectively.
Embracing questions to improve team performance
Imagine if you could resist the temptation to provide an answer and ask questions instead.
It’s a good place to begin. It re-directs the focus and the thinking back onto the original owner of the question. Gently asking further open questions like those below will then help you to understand what’s informed their thinking.
This in turn allows you to help them shape the response into something that can be actioned without exposing your business or your customer to unacceptable risk. You’re coaching them instead of thinking for them.
Ten coaching questions that work
Next time someone presents you with a sales or customer problem try asking some of these questions:
- What impact will this have on this customer x?
- What might it cause to happen in our other customers?
- How does this fit within our sales plan?
- How does this fit within our customer’s plan or strategy?
- What’s the risk of doing this – for us and our customers?
- Where else in our business might this impact?
- What are the results you want from this and how will you measure them?
- What are the pros and cons of this?
- What else have you considered?
- If this was your own money, what would you do?
You can see how these questions can simply be adopted to other business issues. Marketing, finance, supply chain, HR… all functions will respond to similar prompts.
Initially it will undoubtedly take you longer to do this than offering up the immediate answer.
To begin with you might also have to work harder to direct the conversation or challenge and provoke the thinking. Particularly if your team have got used to you as their teacher.
But hold your nerve and persevere because habits and culture will shift for the better over time.
Once you stop playing the teacher you’ll notice your team will arrive armed with ideas and thoughts.
Best of all, you now have the thrill of seeing just how much talent and enthusiasm you’ve unleashed in that team. The very people who can take your business to the next level.