Right questions are one of the most powerful tools of an effective leader

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If you have watched the movie series ‘Pirates of Caribbean’, you would remember Captain Jack Sparrow.  In addition to his classic acting, he is quite famous for his memorable quotes. One such quote is – “The problem is not the problem; it’s your attitude about the problem.”

Sparrow is right. Half of the management problems get solved in an easy and smooth way, if you, as the leader, listen carefully what your team members want to tell you. Communication is a part that involves two actions – speaking and listening. But, majority of today’s leaders lack a genuine interest in listening to others’ views. 

In general, when you are genuinely listening, you’re going to have three main aims: 

Enable both you and team member to digest things through. 
Clarify both parties’ thinking on the topic or subject being discussed. 
Prompt each party to question or test the assumptions that underpin their point of view.

Right questions and right way
Regular one-to-one or supervision sessions are essential for both team leader and member. Supervision provides a great opportunity to learn about your leadership style, team performance and employee. Use your one-to-one meetings to build trust. 

I’m suggesting seven questions that you should ask your team members each month. These are not performance review questions. These are real questions that can dramatically improve the team members’ morale, output and quality of work.

How do you ask the right questions? Remember, these questions will be as useless as sound waves disturbing the ether unless you ask them in the right way.

Here are three tips for asking the right questions in the right way.

Ask sincerely. Ask these questions genuinely. You really want to know the answers. You’re not reading a form. You’re engaging with a person. Ask with authenticity.

Ask humbly. You are asking questions because you want to learn. Be prepared to hear answers that you may not like. This isn’t a time to protest with a no-cannot-do attitude. This is a time to listen - openly and honestly. Be patient and hear them out.

Ask regularly. I’m suggesting that you ask these questions monthly. Totally transparent answers may not be forthcoming the first time you try. But as your team members are reminded of these questions, the gears begin to turn and the thoughts begin to flow. Ask regularly.

Now, let’s ask the questions.
1. What can I do for you?
This question provides a connection that lets your team member know you’re a human. You care about their success and well-being. This is the broadest question of all. The question can transcend the office, work and business.

In asking this question you are saying, “I’m interested in you!”  Giving your team member an opportunity to say something they may otherwise have left unsaid. And, if you agree to do something, make sure you do follow it through.

If you prefer, you can spin the question in a more specific way, to guide them toward answers: Perhaps you know that your team member and his wife recently had a miscarriage. “How’s your family doing? Is there anything I can help you with?” Or, they had water damage in their basement. “You guys had some damage from the flooding? Is there anything I can help you with?” Maybe she is participating in a community volunteer project. “You’re heading up the Lions Clean-up this week. Anything you might need help with?”

You’re more than just a company-minded leader. You’re available to improve their work/life balance.

2. What should I do different?
Use your supervision session to build trust. Listen with presence – give your audience every attention – and create an opportunity to learn about your leadership style. If you wish to improve your performance, seek feedback and ask this question: “What should I do different?” Each member will have some suggestion to make.

3. What can we do better? 
Next, focus on the team. Ask the team this question: “What can we do better?” Find out what can be improved, why it should be improved and how the team can do this.

4. What is holding us back?
Teams often get frustrated because obstacles get in the way of doing a great job. As team leader, it is your responsibility to remove those obstacles and make sure the team is performing at its best. So, ask, “What is holding us back?” and uncover the barriers to progress.

5. What resources would be helpful to you right now?
This question gives you concrete actionable information that can help a worker do better, do more or do it right. By using the word ‘resources’, you’re leaving the door open to a wide variety of things. She may need a virtual assistant, a larger desk, a better computer, more meetings, fewer hours, a small vacation, whatever.

You may be surprised by the answers you get. Sometimes, what we leaders think our team members need is different from what they actually need. We may be prepared to throw more people or money at a project, whereas the real need is a small, inexpensive tweak. You won’t know unless you ask.
This question should be tempered, of course, by a mutual understanding that you can’t deliver anything or everything they want. You have limitations. However, let your employee know that if you can do anything to help, you’re prepared to do so.

6. What’s working well?
Finally, grasp what’s going well for the team and acknowledge this. Just ask: “What’s going well?” Now build on those strengths.

After spending time listening to the team answer these questions you’ll have confidence to tackle issues and keep your team on course. Moreover, involving your team in this way creates confidence in them and in your leadership.

Why questions are effective
These questions help provide a sense of forward motion and progress. A team member needs to know that things aren’t just the same-same humdrum, but are moving along, going forward, getting better.

When a team member relates positive information, it gives them a sense of personal accomplishment. By communicating positive information, he is setting an upbeat context for any further discussion.
As a leader, answers to such questions give you both oversight power and improvement potential. You have a measurable way to track the employee’s work and to see if they are actually contributing in the ways that you need them to.

Synthesize all info
Every team member has a different perspective on the company. If you are in the fashion design business, your designer is going to look at things in a very different way from your programmer. Your content writer is going to have a vastly different approach from your administrative assistant.

Your job as a leader is to synthesize all this information and improve the company. Everyone can add value and not just the value that comes from their performing a strictly-defined job title. They can provide value by sharing their own insights.

The team member understands that things can be done differently. A good company is one that is dynamic, adapting to team members’ needs, adjusting to the shifting market and accommodating industry trends. By introducing “do different” terminology in your discussions you are entertaining the possibility of change. Being open to “what can we do better?” is invaluable both for team member satisfaction and company change.

The team member recognizes the value that he or she can provide beyond his or her job description. You’ve got to harness this contribution. Your team members need to understand their role in for improving the company as a whole.

Being an effective leader is about understanding. You won’t understand unless you listen. Questions are one of the leader’s most powerful tools. Knowing how to wield them with precision is your key to becoming a better leader.

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted 
on [email protected])

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