The Power of
Make Employees Think and Grow
A boss sits down to have a meeting with his employees.
They’ve fallen short of a goal, and so the boss asks: “What
happened? What approach did you use? How did you attempt to meet
your goal?” One by one, the employees give him a litany of reasons,
all of them centered on situations, experiences and the steps they
took in attempting to reach the goal.
They’ve failed to make the mark, no doubt, but even after
this discussion, the reason for their shortfall is still unclear.
That’s because despite all the questioning, the boss hasn’t gotten
to the real issue. He’s failed to ask the most important question:
“Why didn’t you achieve the goal?”
This scenario that plays out all the time in companies,
fostering a never-ending cycle where people are stuck in a place of
great misunderstanding. Asking situation-type questions prevents the
boss from understanding the real issue. It also keeps employees
from doing the necessary brainwork required to uncover it. The
result are answers that amount to fluff. Problems aren’t identified
and the proper corrective actions are not developed.
Leaders should focus on “why” people do what they do versus
“what” they do. Asking the powerful question “Why” forces people to
think deep. They can then peel back the layers of excuses and get
to the root cause of the problem. For example, if employees have
failed to meet a goal and are asked “why” questions rather than
“what” or “how” questions, they might give responses like, “I didn’t
prioritize my time.” So the boss must then go farther and ask, “Why
didn’t you prioritize your time?” When the employees say they have
too much on their plate, the boss, once again, must ask “Why?” The
final answer: These employees are given many tasks from their boss
and cannot distinguish between what is and what isn’t a priority.
With the real problem revealed, the boss can now take appropriate
action, perhaps setting up time to help them prioritize their many
Behind Asking “Why?”
Asking “why” seems
easy enough. It’s just a little word, after all. So “why” don’t
company leaders ask this powerful question more often? Probing deep
can be scary for a boss. It smells of confrontation and hints of
accusation. Yet asking “why” doesn’t have to be confrontational or
insinuate blame, depending on how the “why” question is asked, the
tone of voice used, the way it’s introduced, etc.
Many bosses are also accustomed to being the go-to person for
answers. They’re used to giving direction and opinion. It makes
them feel valued, important and reinforces their position of
authority. Also, some bosses prefer to deliver the answers because
they think it will save precious time. Unfortunately, when bosses
routinely dish out the answers, they become enablers of that
dysfunctional cycle, which is actually a huge time-waster. Employees
regularly seek out the boss for the solution rather than being
problem-solvers. This prevents the ability to develop real
solutions, stifles employee growth and ultimately limits company
The best bosses and company leaders are those who understand
that asking “why” is a highly productive teaching method. And
teaching — rather than preaching — and challenging people to think
is what stimulates discovery, solutions and growth. So the goal of
any leader is to become a great teacher and develop the necessary
skills. This includes not only asking “why” but then also giving
employees an appropriate amount of time to determine the real
answer. That could be as simple as waiting a few minutes for a
response in a meeting, or perhaps sending everyone off to think
about the issue, research the reason for the problem, and return at
a later time with an answer.
Great bosses also teach by holding their employees
accountable for not just the problem’s answer but also its solution.
When the employees are used to going to the boss for answers and
direction, they actually transfer the ownership of the problem from
themselves to the boss. Consequently, they can then blame the boss
for the goal’s shortcomings and failure. It’s no longer their fault
because they didn’t provide the solution – the boss did. Assigning
employees with the task of uncovering the reason for their missed
goal or creating a viable solution to a problem or challenge puts
the responsibility back where it ultimately belongs.
Think back to your favorite teacher, someone who really made
a difference in your life. Did he or she give you all the answers?
(No!) Did he or she make you look for the answers? (Yes!) Did this
teacher hold you accountable? (Absolutely!) These are the ways great
leaders help people learn, cultivate the potential of those around
them, and enable growth.
Becoming the Great Teacher: So when it comes to teaching, how
do bosses start? They must ask more questions in general. To get
people to open up, it’s ok to lead with a few situational question,
such as, “What was the biggest challenge?” But don’t spend a lot of
time here; quickly move on to the meatier “why” questions and get to
the root of the problem. Once the issue is clear, employees commonly
ask bosses for the solution, and this is the opportunity for leaders
to push back and pose that same question to the ones who are asking
it. It’s the employees who need to find the solution, articulate how
it will be done, why it’s the remedy of choice and the appropriate
new goal(s) that must be set to reach it.
Finally, great bosses realize that quick reactions and easy
answers typically don’t produce the right solution. That’s where
digging deep, allotting appropriate time for understanding and
empowering employees to think hard comes into play. The teaching
process is a challenging one if it’s going to be effective. But for
great bosses and leaders, every day provides an opportunity to
create the lesson plan that will develop employees. Their ownership
in mining the solutions to challenges is what ultimate leads to
growth and success.
Tips to Asking Tough
“elephants in the room.”
situation-based questions (i.e., what, when, how, …?).
open-ended questions and keep yes/no questions to a minimum.
Wait for the
answer once you ask the question.
the answer to the question in your question.
“pregnant” pauses are part of the process.
on broad, general statements or “modifier” statements.
“modifier” words (i.e., working on, in process, considering and
thinking about) because you might not be getting the real
the first answer given is the right answer.
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