Google conducted a research study called Project Oxygen to determine what made their most effective managers great. They surveyed over 80,000 managers. In this study, they identified 10 traits that were common among their most effective managers.
The number one trait? Being a good coach, which Google defined as asking questions and listening.
Why Asking Is More Powerful Than Telling
A colleague of mine recently decided to sell his business. His first two attempts failed, so he changed his leadership approach. When employees came to him with a question, he stopped telling them what to do and instead asked them how they’d handle the situation. His employees would state the solution, which empowered them to work creatively and independently. Potential investors saw increased value in the business because the business was less dependent on my colleague, and ultimately, he sold his business.
The most effective leaders know that the best way to engage and empower employees is to ask and listen. There are four key reasons that asking is more powerful than telling:
Questions engage the brain.
If I ask someone a question and they respond, they are thinking and engaging with me on some level. However, if I simply give a command, it doesn’t require any engagement of the brain. When leaders tell instead of ask, employees are less engaged. Over time, this leads to performance issues, learned helplessness, and lower morale.
Questions encourage initiative.
When leaders use the talk and tell (also called control and command) approach, they create learned helplessness among employees. The staff feels they’re being commanded and therefore become dependent on their leader to tell them what must happen next. However, when leaders ask and listen, employees feel empowered to take initiative and find solutions.
Questions lead to greater insights.
Asking questions keeps employees engaged – but it doesn’t stop there. When employees are engaged, they are actively growing, developing, and learning. Providing team members with the opportunity to learn and grow is one of the critical aspects of the employee experience that results in greater engagement and increased productivity.
Asking questions helps people feel heard and respected.
When I begin working with an organization, I often hear employees complain, “We have poor communication and we need to improve it.” Yet when I ask them to define poor communication, they can’t. Leaders often tell me they’ve increased the amount of information they’re providing, yet their teams still say communication is not good enough.
I suspect that when employees complain about poor communication, they’re actually asking for more dialogue and the opportunity to voice their concerns. When leaders ask questions, they automatically open the door for dialogue, and employees feel their concerns are more readily heard.
How to Ask Effective Questions
Asking more questions is just part of the equation. How you ask is also important – otherwise your employees may find your new approach jarring and feel like they’re being interrogated. Ease into a new approach by following these three steps:
When you catch yourself using the talk and tell approach, take a moment to regroup and refocus your approach on asking and listening. It’s OK to stop mid-sentence and say something like, “Wait, let me ask you a question instead”.
Ask open-ended questions.
People feel interrogated when they’re asked a lot of yes or no questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions – that start with what and how – to engage in dialogue. If you’re trying to get team members to commit to a date or deadline, use who and when. Avoid asking why – it immediately puts people on the defensive.
Empower your team.
Once you’ve started asking questions, give your team the green light to act and solve problems. Just like my colleague who sold his business, you’ll find that asking questions allows employees to state solutions and find opportunities to overcome challenges on their own.
Josef Albers is credited with saying, “Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.” I believe the same approach applies to business leadership. Asking questions helps employees feel more engaged, empowered, and valued – and it will ultimately lead to increased productivity and better results.
You can learn more about asking great questions in my free e-book, Leader Language. In it, I explain how to incorporate this and other leadership strategies into everyday communication. Download Leader Language today and experience the difference the right words can make for your team.
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