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Questions leaders can ask

3 min read


The work needs to get done, and it needs to be done well.

So why aren’t your people doing that? Maybe you think you know. But ask yourself first:

  • What have I done to prepare them?
  • What haven’t I done?
  • Have I explained what needs to be done, and why? Have I explained how it needs to be done,  and why?
  • Have I offered feedback, additional insight or reiterated the expectations?
  • Have I helped them understand that I will support them and that there are ultimately obligations to the organization, fellow employees and customers?

If you’re nodding along, great. But you’re only half-done. And this can be the part we like to avoid, because it takes time and can be personal, even uncomfortable.

  • Have you asked people whether they feel prepared?
  • Have you asked what more could help them be prepared, help them understand the goal, the process, the “why”? Those are separate questions, by the way.
  • Have you asked them how they feel about the work? Have you asked how they feel about their work and their role?
  • Have you asked if they feel valued? If not, why not?
  • Have you asked how you, the organization or anything else I’m their life might be impeding their success?

If this person is a peer or a superior, questions can help, but they may take a different form. Have you asked:

  • What is frustrating their efforts? Or, more delicately, “How are things? How are you feeling about X?”
  • What are they excited about? How can we capitalize on that excitement?
  • How you can help them?

The above is far from an exhaustive list. Regardless of the question, listen. Ask yourself, can you listen to and absorb their answers before rushing into your own answers?

Why ask when we think we know the answers?

Some people are overmatched or in the wrong situation or the wrong time. Some are simply unable or uncaring. Some are jerks. Sometimes, changes really do need to be made, either on a project or permanently, and when that’s the case, be swift.

Most times, though, we haven’t done enough as leaders. These people may be in need of guidance, or on their way but just a bit behind. Many times, workplace output is affected because people have lives, and those lives are accompanied by obstacles or pain or distress or illness. You don’t often need to know the details, but do you even have a clue? How can you support them in a proper way?

There aren’t blanket answers I can offer. Those questions, however, can help you light the way toward the beginnings of answers. These answers will change, and they are often murky or fail to point toward clear action; you’ll need to learn over time and practice. And you won’t perfect it. In all matters, try to be empathetic. Barring that, don’t be a jerk.

The important thing is the starting point: How can you help your people help themselves, you and the organization? Have you done enough? Have you learned enough from them, shared enough, been thoughtful enough? Then, ask questions.

You may surprise yourself with the answers.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, and tweets about leadership and management issues at @SBLeaders

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