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I thought I had the answer. Still, I wanted to be sure, so I asked a key employee.”I’m thinking of moving two crews to a different shift rotation to get a better process flow,” I said. “I’ve run the numbers, and overall productivity should go up by at least 10 percent. What do you think?”

He thought for a minute. “I suppose it could work,” he said.

“I think so, too,” I said. So I moved them.

My new shift rotation worked on paper. It even worked in practice. But it screwed up the personal lives of a bunch of great employees. (Luckily, I pulled my head out of my ass and shifted everyone back to their old rotations.)

What happened? I asked the wrong question.

We all do it. We ask leading questions. We ask limiting questions. We ask questions that assume a certain answer. (Shoot, sometimes we don’t even listen to the answers–we’re too busy presuming we’re right.)

Here are some ways people ask questions the wrong way.

1. They lead the witness.

Asking a question that assumes a particular answer is easy to do when you already think you’re right and just want people to say you’re right.

Examples:

-“Don’t you think we should go ahead and release that order?”

-“Do you think we should wait any longer than we already have?”

-“Can anyone think of a good reason not to discipline Joe?”

Each question assumes an answer: You clearly think you should release the order, stop waiting, and write Joe up. Though a few people may disagree, most won’t–the answer you want to hear is obvious.

A better way:

-“What do you think we should do about that order?”

-“Programming isn’t complete yet. What do you think we should do?”

-“What do you think is the best way to deal with Joe’s situation?”

Each is objective and direct, and does not include an answer in the question. And each also leaves room for a variety of options, which won’t happen when…

2. They ask only either/or questions.

You have a quality problem and have thought of two possible solutions. There are positives and negatives to both. So you seek input from a team member. “Should we just scrap everything and rework the whole job,” you ask, “or should we ship everything and hope the customer doesn’t notice?”

Most people will pick one answer or the other. But what if there’s a better option you haven’t considered?

A better way: “There are defects throughout the whole order. What do you think we should do?”

Maybe she’ll say scrap it. Maybe she’ll say ship and hope.

Or maybe she’ll say, “What if we tell the customer up front there is a problem, ship everything to them, and take a crew to their warehouse to sort product. That reduces the impact on the customer. They can use whatever is good and won’t have to wait for the entire job to be rerun.”

Either/or questions, just like leading questions, assume some answer. Instead of sharing options, just state the problem. Then ask, “What do you think?” Or “What would you do?” Or “How should we handle this?”

And then be quiet and let people think. Don’t rush to fill the silence.

3. They don’t seek to genuinely understand.

Asking questions can make you feel vulnerable when you’re in a leadership role. (You’re supposed to have all the answers, right?) That makes it hard to ask questions when you don’t understand–especially when you’re supposed to understand.

Don’t worry: Asking for clarification is easy. Just say:

-“I’m impressed. Now pretend I don’t know anything about how that works. How would you explain it to me?”

-“That sounds really good. Let me make sure I don’t miss anything, though. Can you walk me through it one more time?”

-Or, best of all: “I have to be honest: I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, but I really want to.” (A little humility goes a long way.)

Above all, don’t pretend you understand when you don’t–all you do is waste the other person’s time and make the person wonder later why you didn’t try his or her idea.

 Tune in Thursday for Part 2 of this series, where we flip it around and share how to ask great questions.

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