How Managers Can Get Better Results by Asking Better Questions

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May 19, 2016

A manager’s ability to bring out the best in their direct reports is hugely affected by whether they engage them in conversations about what they, the manager, can do to help their direct report perform at their best. The usefulness of these conversations depends, in large part, upon the quality of questions the manager asks, because:

When you ask people better questions, you get better answers, and therefore, the information you need to get better results from them.

In this article, you will find a list of questions that will lead to productive conversations yielding valuable engagement and productivity-enhancing information from each employee.

You will only use a few questions in any one conversation, given the depth of information each one can potentially provide.

Questions 1-7 are a great way to start the process off, especially with new hires. Because the questions are about past managers and past employers, they require less candor and courage than answering questions about their current employer and current manager, i.e. you. Because of that, you can get incredibly useful information on how to bring out the best in them in a non-threatening, non-intrusive way.

A script for these conversations

If you’ve never had a “How can I bring out the best in you” conversation, it might catch your employees off-guard when you suddenly start.

Here’s a simple script for starting these conversations:

Sarah, one of the things getting more and more recognition in the management and leadership fields, is how important it is to understand what makes each of your team members tick so you know how to bring out the best in each person.

For instance, things like how one team member prefers getting feedback might be very different than how another team member does, or what motivates one person is not necessarily what is motivating to another.

I want to do a better job of understanding what works best for you and each of the others on our team, sort of like having an owner’s manual to what works best for Sarah and one for each of the others on the team.

So, with that in mind, I’ll be setting up meetings with each of you, and asking for your insights and feedback related to how you work best and how I can be the best manager for you.

This won’t be a one-and-done conversation because I’ve got a lot of questions I want to ask. It will be an ongoing conversation.

I’ll give you the questions I’ll be asking ahead of time, so you can give them some thought and won’t have to come up with feedback right on the spot.

Do you have any questions about this?

Tips for getting more useful responses

To facilitate their recalling of what works for them, and what doesn’t, you can give them one or more examples of what you’re talking about. So for instance, if you are asking them about what types of appreciation work for them and what don’t, you could give a few examples of approaches that work for some people but not others.

The quality of the information you get from your questions depends upon the specificity and concreteness of the information. Thus, if someone just says “My favorite manager from the past was really good at making you feel like you mattered” that doesn’t give you any information about HOW the manager accomplished this. If you ask, “How did they do that?” and the person says, “Oh, I don’t know. He would ask us our opinions about how things should be done,” that gives you information you can work with.

If you go one step further and ask for examples of him doing that, and what he said, and how he said it, you then have information that allows you to more accurately duplicate what works for this person.

Whenever someone gives you abstract answers, like “He really showed he cared about me,” or feedback like “I wish you would listen better,” ask them for specific examples.  You want to make sure the way you ask for specifics is not interpreted as request for them to justify their comment. Make clear you ask for specifics because you want to make sure you understand what they mean.

So, for instance, you might say, “I really appreciate your giving me this feedback. I want to make sure I understand what it is I do that comes across as me not listening. Can you describe what you see and hear me doing — and not doing? Even better, can you describe a situation or two that stands out in your mind where I didn’t come across as listening?”

By framing your request in that way, rather than just, “What’s an example of that,” you make your request for more detail friendly and inviting rather than a demand for them to back up their claim.

One more reminder about the questions

As you go through this list, think of it as a buffet of questions. With a buffet, you don’t eat every item before you. You pick and choose. It’s the same with these questions. They are not meant to be asked in a single conversation.

Focus on the questions that fit your relationship with that employee, and where they are in terms of performance and professional development. As mentioned earlier, questions 1-7 are a safe, low threat way to begin the process.

The questionsbox to download questions

  1. When you think about managers you’ve had in the past, what have they done that has been the most helpful to you, both in terms of job satisfaction and in your ability to perform at your best?
  2. When you think about managers you’ve had in the past, what did they do that was least helpful?
  3. What did they do that was most frustrating?
  4. Did they do things that killed your enthusiasm — or made you care a little less about going the extra mile — and if so, what did they do?
  1. When you think about past employers, what did they do that was most helpful, both in terms of bringing out the best in you and in how happy you were working there?
  2. When you think about past employers, what did they do that was least helpful, that bothered you the most?
  3. When you left previous jobs, what made you think about looking elsewhere for work?
    1. Follow-up question: Was there a “final straw” event, and if so, what happened and why was that the final straw?
    2. Follow-up question: What were some of the “little things” that happened that started to add up until you had enough?
  4. What do I do that is most helpful to you, both in terms of job satisfaction and helping you be your best?
  5. What do I do that is least helpful or most frustrating?
  6. What could I do more of?
  7. What’s something I haven’t been doing that would be helpful for me to start doing with you?
  8. Can you give examples of how managers have given you feedback that wasn’t helpful? (Note: for examples that aren’t self-evident, ask why it wasn’t helpful)
  9. Can you give me examples of how managers — or other people — have given you feedback in a way that was helpful?
  10. Each of us has our own preferences about how we like to receive appreciation; some approaches work for us and others don’t. Can you think of times you received appreciation when it was especially meaningful to you? What did the person do to make it meaningful?
    1. Follow-up question: Can you think of times where someone expressed appreciation, but it didn’t feel meaningful or sincere, or maybe it felt awkward? Can you describe what made those situations not work for you?
    2. Follow-up question: So, it sounds like (summarize the themes you heard about what works and what doesn’t for this person), is that accurate? How would you modify what I said to make it 100% right on?
  11. What about recognition? Each of us has our own preferences about how we like to receive recognition. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another person. Can you describe situations where you received recognition where it was particularly meaningful and those where it wasn’t, or it was uncomfortable?
    1. Follow-up question if they don’t describe why the situations had the effect they did: What about that approach made it meaningful? Or, what about that approach made it feel awkward?
    2. Follow-up question if they struggle coming up with examples: OK. How about in general terms, how do you like to receive recognition? What works for you and what doesn’t?
  12. Are there things our company does that interfere with you doing your job, or doing your job to the best of your ability?
  13. In the area of knowledge and skill development, are there particular areas you are most interested in cultivating?
  14. What do you see as your biggest strengths?
  15. Do you feel like you are getting enough opportunities to use your strengths, and if not, how might we work together to provide more?
  16. What about your job and working here is most meaningful to you, in the sense of “I’m making a difference in the world. What I do matters”?
  17. How connected do you feel to our mission and vision?
  18. Are there things that we could do to create a stronger connection?
  19. Do you feel like you are getting the training, coaching, technology, information, and other resources necessary to do your job well?
    1. Follow-up question (for each area): Is there one thing we are doing that is most helpful?
    2. Follow-up question (for each area): How can we do better in this area?
  20. What are you career goals — whether short or long term, or both?
  21. Are there ways we can play a more helpful role in helping you grow professionally and achieve those goals?
  22. If you were to hand someone a short “Owner’s Manual to Bringing Out the Best in Me,” what would be the top takeaways you would want them to remember, both the Dos and the Don’ts?

What would you add?

What other questions would you recommend adding to this list?

Are there other guiding principles or verbiage you would add to this article, to make it even more useful to managers who hope to bring out the best in their employees?

Please include them in the comments section.