Listening is cited among the top attributes of successful business leaders. Listening, reflecting on what is being said, and discerning meaning behind employee stories, the “real” or base-line issues, requires leaders to inquire, to ask questions which cause an employee to stop and think.
Successful business leaders know the difference between inquiry and leading questions. Leaders may have opinions about an employee’s story and probable course of action and may be tempted to ask questions which lead to their predetermined conclusion. Successful leaders, however, realize the importance of employees’ finding their own truths, so employees will embrace the outcomes of their actions.
When we inquire, we park our values, opinions, assumptions, and predetermined conclusions at the door. We prepare ourselves for a diversity of outcomes and possibilities. We inquire through open-ended questions. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response. They cause a person to ponder issues they may not have previously addressed. This process of deliberation creates new opportunities for learning because a person learns how to think.
Open-ended questions serve the person being questioned. These questions may bring the employee greater understanding about their story, which is the presenting issue. While their story requires a tactical result, it also provides opportunities for transformational change, producing strategic results.
Open-ended questions create opportunities for transformational change when a person being questioned realizes the tactical issue may also be a manifestation of broader issues in her life. Through transformational change, a person may gain insight into how she approaches a tactical issue along with realization that her beliefs influence her thinking and drives her behaviors. As such, her insight is transformational because she learns how to solve problems and approach other opportunities besides the presenting issue.
To summarize, leaders may follow a four-step process of inquiry to discern base-line employee issues, thereby achieving tactical and transformational results:
Here’s an example of the four steps in action. Let’s assume a supervisor and an employee are having a conversation in an employee’s performance review. The supervisor may have an opinion about an employee’s performance and ask leading questions. Or, the supervisor may use inquiry through open-ended questions to discover the employee’s perspective and to help the employee discern base-line issues.
Supervisor (setting up for inquiry): “Hi, Bob, thank you for meeting with me regarding your performance on the Boston account. I’ve been concerned about missed deadlines reported by our customer. I’m wondering what’s going on?”
Employee (acting defensively): “Well, Angela, it’s really not my fault because I don’t have time to get the reports finished by the deadlines.”
Supervisor (probing more deeply): “Say more?”
Employee (starting to open up): “This is hard to say, but I don’t feel supported by you.”
Supervisor (remaining neutral): “Can you give me an example?”
Employee (telling his story): “You pick on me when you comment on my spelling and grammar in customer reports. The customer knows what I’m saying. When I have to re-write reports, I miss deadlines.”
Supervisor (asking permission for inquiry): “May I ask some questions to clarify the issue?”
Employee (thinking, and then responding): “I guess.”
Supervisor (using reflective listening and asking an open-ended question): “How would it be for you if I didn’t pick on you and supported you to do your best possible work?”
Employee (contemplating, and then stating): “That would be great!”
Supervisor (going more deeply for employee learning): “How would it be for you if you believed I wasn’t picking on you?”
Employee (relaxing a bit and, then asking): “Great, but exactly what do you mean?”
Supervisor (forwarding the learning): “Our customers want clear communications with correct spelling and grammar. I want you to succeed with our customers. How would it serve me to let you fail with customers through incorrect spelling and grammar?”
Employee (pondering and, then saying with relief): “Wow, I never thought of it that way. I guess it wouldn’t.”
Supervisor (using reflective listening and reinforcing change in thinking, tactical and transformational): “How can I support you on the Boston account and what do you need from me to be successful in other aspects of your life?”
Employee (thinking and, then saying): “Hum…great questions! I’ll have to think about that and talk with you later.”
This is an abbreviated version of a potentially difficult conversation, which could last considerably longer and go in unanticipated directions. The narrative would change, but important behaviors for leaders following a four- step process to discern real employee issues would be similar.
When business leaders use inquiry to help employees discern real issues, they support pathways for employee learning. Learning may occur at a tactical level, directed toward solving a presenting issue.
Learning may also occur at a transformational level when employees apply learning more broadly in their lives. Inquiry supports tactical results and transformational learning yielding employee growth with potential for achieving broad business goals.
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Richard Wilberg, MS, PLCC, ACC
Life Coach for Personal Fulfillment and Career Success
About the Author
Richard Wilberg is a coach, musician, photographer, and former business leader who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.