Do Ask, Don’t Tell

When you are trying to help your employees resolve an issue, it’s often better to ask questions instead of just telling them what they should do. You are more likely to help them reach a solution that is good for them and for you.

If you have an employee who is having problems, whether it’s work-related or maybe something from their personal life that is affecting them at work, resist the natural urge to immediately offer your advice on what they should do. Think about how you respond to advice. More specifically, think about how you respond to unsolicited advice. Do you sometimes resent it? Do you get defensive? That’s natural, so do not assume others will react to it differently than you do.

When you observe someone’s performance or they mention a problem, it’s easy to jump up and offer suggestions based on what you have seen and heard. Realize, though, that you probably don’t know all the facts. Asking questions will help you understand not only the root problem but also any factors that affect their options. Solutions that you suggest might not be feasible due to other considerations, something you will only know if you ask them about it first.

At the end of the day, most people want to know they are able to solve problems on their own. Few people really enjoy being told what to do. If you ask the right questions, you can help walk them down a path toward the answer. If they see the answer from their own perspective rather than yours, they are more likely to accept it; they are also more likely to incorporate it into their daily lives. That old line about “give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them how to fish and they eat for a lifetime” has a lot of truth behind it. If you help people work toward the answer rather than just giving it to them, they understand it a lot better and will probably internalize it.

People often know the answer, they just need someone to help them verbalize it. Asking them some leading questions can help them give voice to those answers, which become much more meaningful when coming from them rather than coming from you. If there is a problem with their conduct, the simple question “if someone else was doing the same thing, and it affected you, would you be ok with it?,” puts them in a position where they cannot really escape the best answer. Sometimes, all they need is to know that someone agrees with what they are already thinking, and if you can get it out into the open and discuss the answer they already know to be best, they can move forward with it.

Remember, too, that talented people can often be a little ego-centric bunch. People who are talented usually know they are talented, and they may not like the idea of someone else coming up with the answer. I saw something along these lines in the military, when I was in Iraq: as a mid-level officer I would be sitting along the wall in meetings while more senior officers had a discussion at the table. Knowing that my lower rank could keep my ideas from being accepted, I instead asked questions in such a way that there was only one answer: the answer I wanted them to give. This allowed them to think that the ideas they were generating were their own, so they were more likely to implement them. This might sound a bit passive aggressive, but you have a responsibility to run your organization, and if this kind of approach works best then that’s what you need to do.

When your employees are given the chance to solve problems now, they are more likely to do so in the future too, with more confidence and less reliance upon you. Helping your folks solve a problem rather than solving it for them helps to develop their abilities and gives you a more skilled workforce. Considering the pace of change and the geographic expansion of growing organizations, you need people who can operate independently, so use every opportunity to build that capability into your workforce.

All of this is just as true for helping people through personal issues as well as professional ones; an employee who’s distracted by a love life gone bad can have the same impact on your business as one who is distracted by a project gone bad. While you probably don’t want to spend too much time digging through your employees’ personal lives, you should be available to help your folks, not just because it’s good for business but also because it’s just a nice thing to do. You are more likely to help them, though, by asking the right questions than by simply offering up what YOU think is the right answer.

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