Problems Are Coaching Opportunities:
Asking Artful Questions
By Doug Silsbee
day, in businesses around the world, people take problems to their
bosses. Every day, the boss asks enough questions to get the lay of
the land, then tells the employee how to handle it.
see, most of us like to solve problems. While we might complain
to our spouses and our colleagues that work is just one brush fire
after another, there is also a part of us that is proud that we’re
the “go to person” that can put fires out.
what’s missing? The learning and development of the employee. Daily
problems provide a major opportunity to coach and develop your
employees. This shift begins by asking artful questions that get
your employees thinking, rather than simply providing answers. This
article will show you how. First,
let’s look at how a typical well-meaning manager might ask questions
when faced with one of countless daily brush fires. She is likely to
ask questions in several of these categories:
Question Category #1: History.
“What have we tried before?” “Who did that?” “How did we get
here?” and “What did we charge them last year?” are
history-based questions that draw upon the employee’s knowledge to
establish context for the current situation.
Question Category #2: The problem itself. These questions elicit information the manager
will need about the problem. “What happened? “What do they
want?” “What’s broken?” and “What’s at stake?” will get
factual answers from the employee’s mental picture of the problem.
With this information, the manager can decide what to do.
Question Category #3: Available resources. “How much inventory do we have?” “What
resources do we have?” “How much time do we have to fix this?”
and “What equipment is on-site?” help establish what resources are
available to be deployed against the problem. Resource availability,
of course, will influence the feasibility of various solutions.
Question Category #4: Possible solutions. Here, questions for the employee center on
identifying ideas for solving the problem. “Do you have any ideas
about how to solve it?” “What might work?” “Have you gotten
any ideas from the team?” are examples of these. Here, the manager
is gathering input while looking for a solution.
questions are all fine. They provide important data, and will
typically be part of any problem-solving conversation. They may well
provide the manager with sufficient information to suggest a solution.
Great, right? Wrong! Read on.
down side? These questions keep the manager in charge. They lead to a
one way flow of information from the employee to the manager. Armed
with this information, the manager can then make a decision. The
employee is treated as a source of data, rather than as a creative,
capable problem solver. While the problem was solved, the employee
didn’t learn anything new, and has little investment in the
questions fail to:
the employee to think. Factual questions, geared toward obtaining
information for the manager, invite a data download. They don’t
impel the employee to access his creativity and resourcefulness.
responsibility on the shoulders of the employee. While this might
feed the manager’s sense of self-importance, continuing to solve
problems in this way (multiplied by the many little problems that
often show up in the course of an average day!) makes the
manager’s job bigger and bigger and fosters employee dependency.
joint problem-solving and collaboration. The manager will tend to
do things the way she always has, rather than enlisting the
employee in a process that could lead to new solutions.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea when it’s
the only one you have.”
solution? Different approaches to questioning can enhance the
manager/employee relationship, lead to more creative solutions, and
invest in the employee’s long term capabilities. So, let’s
consider some alternatives.
questions” push the employee to think because, by design, the
employee doesn’t already know the answer. These coaching questions
challenge the employee to think out of the box, put responsibility
back on the shoulders of the employee, and often lead to better
solutions. Designed to impel the employee into a process of learning
and exploration, they also provide more opportunity for the manager to
artful questions will illustrate a thinking process,
rather than simply obtaining information necessary for an answer. The
question represents a line of inquiry that can be used in many problem
situations. By asking artful questions, the manager helps the employee
learn how to solve problems,
leading to more independence down the road. As the ancient Chinese
proverb says, “If I give you a fish, you eat for a day. If I teach
you to fish, you eat for a lifetime.”
the questions need to be created for the specific situation, but here
are a few examples that can be used to coach in problem situations.
Question Category #1: Criteria for a solution.
Ask the employee about the criteria that would define a great
solution. Later, possible solutions can be evaluated against these
criteria. Getting clear about criteria early in the conversation will
focus and energize problem-solving. “Who needs to be happy here?”
“What are the primary concerns to take care of?” and “What’s
the bottom line that our solution must address?” are examples.
Question Category #2: Switching perspective. Ask the employee to step into a different
perspective, and view the problem from there. You can ask the employee
to view the problem from the viewpoint of a different function, time,
or person. The popular bumper sticker “What would Jesus do?” is a
great example of a perspective switch that can illuminate how to
handle a tricky situation.
switching is a great “out of the box” approach. Often, with a
different view, new ideas will surface that previously hadn’t
occurred to the employee. Try out, for example, “What would an
engineer/sales person/accountant say to do?” “If you were to look
back from six months out, knowing that your solution worked
beautifully, what would be in place?” “What do you think our
customer’s/boss’s primary concern is in this?”
Question Category #3: Creative Resourcing. This category of questions challenges the employee
to identify new resources that could be brought to bear. Notice the
similarity to the Available Resources category above; the distinction
is that this category seeks to expand the resources available for a
solution. “We can’t go lower on price, so what can we offer that
would add value without costing us much?” “What else is lying
around that might be helpful?” “What non-critical projects could
spare someone to help out for a week?”
Question Category #4: Unique contribution. Ask a question that directs the employee’s
attention towards his strengths and to view a solution in that
context. “You have terrific skills in X; how does your experience
suggest we should move forward?” “What solution would best take
advantage of your expertise in sales?” “What solution is most
consistent with your values?” All of these affirm and validate the
experience and judgment of the employee, and send the powerful message
that he is uniquely capable of providing the solution.
Question Category #5: Challenging limitations.
Together, list the rules and assumptions that you’ve made about the
situation. Go down the list, one by one, and question them. Be a
devil’s advocate. “Who says that this can’t be changed?”
“What assumptions can be eliminated?” “What rules can be
broken?” This isn’t an argument for random abandonment of
reasonable rules. However, if the specific problem provides an
opportunity to streamline a procedure or eliminate unnecessary
restrictions, there may be real benefits to changing things.
questions stimulate a creative thinking process and a dialog. Rather
than a one-sided data gathering process that allows the “expert”
manager to decide what should happen, artful questions challenge the
employee to think and take ownership. The results include an employee
more able to problem-solve the next time, lowered dependency on the
manager, and often more creative and effective solutions.
words of caution. First, not every problem lends itself to this
approach. For example, if an employee, on his first day on the job,
needs to know how to turn the computer on, it will be more appropriate
to show him the switch than to ask “Who might be able to tell you
where the manual is?” It takes some discernment from the manager to
decide if a particular problem is really an opportunity for asking
coaching questions, or whether it might be better to simply provide an
answer and get on with it. Assessing the nature of the problem, the
capability of the employee, and the urgency all factor into the
when employees are used to getting simple answers, to be suddenly
asked challenging questions can be confusing. In order to not appear
“gamey,” it is important for the manager to give the employee
context. Let him know that you’re asking questions in order to coach
and support his learning.
may be useful to say something like, “Let’s try something a little
different. I’m not sure what the best solution is. I have confidence
in your capability. Let’s try some questions that will help us come
up with a great solution to this.” Providing a little context will
do much to enroll the employee in a process that changes how you work
together in subtle but significant ways.
bottom line? Far too many managers create a subtle dependency and keep
themselves in the driver’s seat when they could be coaching their
employees to take more responsibility in solving problems. Most
managers could be much more effective by using day-to-day work
situations as coaching opportunities for their employees.
artful questions to challenge and intrigue employees is a great
starting point. Use them to send the consistent message that you see
your employees as capable, resourceful, and creative.
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