Today’s show is on The Art of Questions. Listen to the show on iTunes and Stitcher.

The ability to ask questions of people opens up the door for them to share what they already know. It gives you an opportunity as a manager, as a leader, to demonstrate empathy. It’s a very tacit example of validation. Questions build relationships and trust with the team.

Don [00:00:19] My name is Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and author of the book, “Thrive By Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.”

Don [00:00:28] I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement and I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized and valued. Employees who feel safe are happier, healthier and more productive.

Don [00:00:46] Each week, my team and I take on topics impacting managers and we offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. And, you’re listening to Thrive By Design, a podcast created by E3 Solutions to give managers, CEOs and leaders the tips, strategies and tools needed to create an engaged culture at work.

Kelly [00:01:10] Welcome, I’m your host, Kelly Burns, vice president of client experiences at E3 Solutions.

Kelly [00:01:16] As always, we tackle critical workplace themes each week with our resident expert and CEO, Don Rheem.

Kelly [00:01:23] Welcome Don and thank you for taking the time to be here with us.

Don [00:01:26] It’s my pleasure, Kelly.

Kelly [00:01:28] As we heard at the top of today’s episode, this week’s focus is on the art of questions.

Kelly [00:01:32] So much of a leader’s day is spent asking questions, soliciting information from your employees, getting progress reports, status updates on things. But asking questions is truly an art form for increasing engagement in an organization.

Kelly [00:01:45] It’s an incredible way to build relationships, get at the heart of an issue, seek opinions from your employees, not always be the expert but invite ownership from your employees.

Kelly [00:01:55] Leaders who don’t ask questions well are missing out on a critical opportunity to truly engage their organization and their teams.

Kelly [00:02:03] Why should a leader be invested in asking questions of their employees Don? How does it connect to improving workplace engagement?

Don [00:02:11] This is a really good subject for us to be talking about after last week’s podcast on active listening.

Don [00:02:17] The ability to ask questions of people opens up the door for them to share what they already know. It gives you an opportunity as a manager, as a leader, to demonstrate empathy by listening empathetically to their answers. It demonstrates that you care about them. It’s a very tacit example of validation, something we’ve talked about before.

Don [00:02:39] When you ask an employee a question, you’re validating them by saying, hey, you know what your opinion is important enough to me that I want to solicit your opinions. So, when someone is asked you’re actually validating them and making them feel more valuable.

Don [00:02:53] We talk about, again and again, about the importance in today’s workplace in today’s labor market for organizations and managers to create emotional velcro between themselves and the employee. Why would the employee continue to work for them if they could get additional money somewhere else and it’s this emotional velcro that hooks and loops that hold an employee to an organization and this constant validation that comes from questions would certainly be a part of that.

Don [00:03:19] It also helps the manager talk less, frankly. There’s a lot of discussion now in the workplace about going to flat hierarchies and eliminating the typical structure.

Don [00:03:31] I’m not a particular fan of that because one of the things that we know from the standpoint of cultural anthropology and our species is the most enduring form of leadership we’ve ever created is hierarchy. That is, we want to know who’s in charge. We want to load share some of the toughest issues that come up to leaders at the top of an organization but we don’t want leaders acting hierarchically, that is, making people feel like they’re in a one down position.

Don [00:03:54] So, you can in effect create a flatter organization but not by changing titles and eliminating positions but by simply asking more questions of others instead of constantly talking and telling. I want you asking and listening.

Don [00:04:09] And, there’s four subjects or categories of reasons why I think questions can be so helpful in designing the future of work.

Don [00:04:17] One is that questions build relationships and trust with the team and I want us to come back and spend more time in these. Kelly, I know you’ve spent a lot of time on this topic. This is one of your areas of expertise and I know that there’s a particular resource that you’ve used that provides us with some examples of key questions and I want to come back to that.

Don [00:04:35] First, category one. Questions help build relationships and trust. Secondly, they are a way of offering feedback but by getting into a feedback conversation by using questions. Secondly, questions around challenging individuals their personal and professional growth when we want them to grow, learn something new. Let’s use questions to get in there and dig deeper. And, then questions just to gain insight and knowledge from employees because they do know things that managers often don’t. And so those would be four categories I’d like us to drill down on.

Don [00:05:06] But before we do that I want to get to the larger issue for me something that we’ve been telling managers for the last eight years at E3 solutions.

Don [00:05:14] I want them to lead with curiosity rather than judgment. Instead of telling people, open up with curiosity and I love this frame of curiosity when interacting with others because it invites a conversation, It tends to eliminate or reduce labels and judgments and preconceived notions. It invites a conversation but also importantly, we talk so much about the limbic system that’s hyper-vigilant for threat favors false positives.

Don [00:05:42] Using a frame of curiosity to have these tough conversations we need to have often with employees about performance gets underneath that often helps to get underneath the defensive mechanisms. We don’t want the amygdala triggering threat in this conversation and having and leading with his frame of curiosity helps us eliminate that or at least reduce it.

Kelly [00:06:03] I totally agree. And I know that we have called this episode the art of questions because it is an art. It’s not something that comes naturally to a lot of people, we often are looking right at the tip of our nose to the projects we have right in front of our face. We’re focused on progress in getting things done and accomplishing tasks. I know that I am.

Kelly [00:06:23] So it’s hard, many times for leaders to step out of that immediate framework of what’s right in front of them to ask really thoughtful questions that invite others into a relationship, into opinions, into getting their expertise, not just sharing your expertise.

Kelly [00:06:40] One of the simplest things that we typically do is ask yes-no questions, get it done and move on. That’s not the kind of questions we’re talking about and those certainly don’t invite relationship or expertise from your direct reports.

Kelly [00:06:53] You’ve talked before about the science of the power of choice and I think that questions also could come under that umbrella. The science that you’ve talked about before and I’d love for you to share how the power of choice really impacts the way that we buy in as employees, as managers, because asking the right kinds of questions can really invite your employees into having a choice, having a say, having a sense of ownership.

Don [00:07:20] Yes. So and it is about a sense of ownership or autonomy or empowerment but asking permission, if you will, asking questions. A question about, for example, to have this tough conversation and here’s how the research that was so intriguing to me that we bring into to our consulting and this is a really simple study of bringing volunteers in to participate in what they believed to be a drug research study.

Don [00:07:48] The volunteers come in, they’re told that they need to take these pills for three weeks and journal about them, the impact of the pill of both writing, journaling about the positive and negative side effects of taking the pill.

Don [00:08:00] By the way, that the pill is a placebo, it’s a sugar pill. It has no medicinal value whatsoever but the researchers divided the volunteers into two camps. In the first camp, you give them the instructions, take these pills, journal about it for three weeks and then and here are your pills, you all get green pills and please go ahead and go do this.

Don [00:08:17] And so then they all leave and take it for three weeks and journal about positive, negative side effects. The second group is given the very same briefing and by the way as you exit you can pick up what pills you want to use. You can either pick the blue ones or the red ones. You pick whichever pills you want to take and then they go off and so they come back and.

Don [00:08:38] Which group do you think reported than most negative side effects?

Kelly [00:08:40] The ones that have the choice.

Don [00:08:42] The ones that had no choice reported more negative side effects from taking the pill. And the group that did have a choice reported more positive outcomes from taking this placebo and the only difference between those two groups was choice.

Don [00:08:56] So the way that we use this particularly for managers is if you need to have a tough conversation with someone with an employee who’s underperformed or done something wrong, a simple question and I’ll ask you, Kelly, can we talk about this? This is a really important issue but can we talk about this at some point soon?

Don [00:09:12] And just, that very act of asking you, can we talk about this? When you say yes, that can change the trajectory of where that conversation is going to go because you’ve invited me and you said this is okay. We’ve already framed this conversation in a way that says you want to participate in this.

Kelly [00:09:30] And choice comes in beyond just asking if you can have a feedback conversation with someone, right? If you ask a very simple question of your employees, what do you think? That gives them a choice to have a say a voice and back to ownership which is a critical part of employees feeling engaged in the workplace.

Kelly [00:09:49] When you ask what do you think? You’re inviting them into the story of the trajectory of the project, the plan, the team, the organization whatever it is. And that gives them a choice to step up and say here’s my idea. I want to be involved. I want to help with this. This is what I think we should do.

Don [00:10:06] And the other thing again just to reemphasize the point I made earlier. This helps to flatten the hierarchy if you will. I as the manager, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m saying, what do you think we should do? And, that is a way, I hope this makes sense, of flattening a hierarchy. I’m not on high, talking down to you, my employees. We are now on a level playing field and I’m asking you your opinion.

Don [00:10:28] Now, what managers have to understand that the risk of this, if you will, is you get an opinion from an employee that you can’t act on that it’s clearly the wrong idea. And so that’s something else we can talk about as well but the ability to ask these questions is just incredibly valuable.

Don [00:10:45] I want to ask you, Kelly, so this first category you talked about was using questions to build relationship and trust. Can you give us some examples of what some of those questions might look like?

Kelly [00:10:57] Sure. Over the last few years, I’ve really enjoyed this particular book, both as a leader and somebody who studies leadership regularly. It’s called, “Power Questions.” It’s written by a guy named Andrew Sobel.

Kelly [00:11:09] It’s a really interesting very, very practical book on how to ask thoughtful questions that get at the heart of the matter that build relationships that win sales, that do all kinds of interesting things. It helps put questions in a really strong framework that aligns so closely with what we know humans need to feel safe, valued and secure in the work that they’re doing in the workplace.

Kelly [00:11:33] So, I’ve organized some of the questions that he has talked about in that book which will link in the show notes for you.

Kelly [00:11:41] And when we talk about questions that build relationships and trust I know in a previous podcast you’ve shared the story about the engineering team that you are working with who just really didn’t feel quite comfortable knowing what personal questions to ask to build relationships with their employees. They tended to be more black and white thinkers in and project focus and task focus versus relationship focused.

Kelly [00:12:07] But if you’re on episode 28 of this podcast you know that we are strong believers and proponents in the importance of building relationships, especially as it creates engagement and reduces turnover in an organization. So you were talking to them about the particular question that they could ask you was a very very very simple one but also a very effective one. What did you do this weekend? And that can get at all kinds of interesting insights into an employee’s life outside of work.

Don [00:12:35] Yeah perfect question for Monday morning. You know just they’re coming in. Very simple. And the thing is the reason I like that question is these engineers were worried about being too invasive. And so you can ask this question, how was your weekend and they can answer very simply. It was great. And then move on. So it’s not invasive or they might tell you a story. Oh, you know my daughter plays lacrosse and her team is now in the championships. So they can dig a little deeper and you also are getting these real nuggets about the individual.

Kelly [00:13:05] Absolutely. And even just as you think about the art of questions, how you frame it often determines the kind of answer that you get back. So how is your weekend is often going to be, it was great, it was fine. But, tell me about your weekend or what did you do this weekend, would invite more conversation, right?

Don [00:13:24] Yeah there’s something else I want to add to this. When we take in information from another person there’s like three channels of data that the brain is processing. This is the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a psychiatrist at UCLA at the time in the communication department. And he talks about these three channels.

Don [00:13:40] There’s the word you use. How was your weekend? Then, there’s your voice tone. And then there’s your body language.

Don [00:13:45] So if I ask you, how is your weekend, in a monotone, and I’m not looking at you, I’m looking at my phone as I say it. There’s an issue here, about, is this question viewed is this sincere? Is this authentic? Or, is this just a gratuitous social gesture?

Kelly [00:14:01] And often it is a gratuitous social gesture. That’s part of, I think, how we’re trained in the American culture. You offer this particular question as a pleasantry on Monday morning and you move on. But the way that you ask a question will dictate how much an employee believes that you actually want to know more about them and the specifics that you get into as you’re digging deeper.

Kelly [00:14:22] So in talking about digging deeper that’s a great question as you’re building relationships and to use over time. Tell me about your weekend. What did you do this weekend? But the book that I was just referring to earlier has some other really interesting ones on building relationships and trust and I’ll just list a few of them out.

Kelly [00:14:38] So as you’re continuing that relationship, as you’re digging into it and taking it further below the surface, here’s a couple of them that we could think about. What makes you proud to work here? That’s a great question for us to get at understanding what drives an employee what motivates them and certainly increases engagement.

Don [00:14:56] A little variation on that. What makes you proud about the work you do?

Kelly [00:15:00] Absolutely. A question, what are some of the favorite things you’d like to do when you’re not in the office? That’s a really easy one to get at what an employee does outside of work. We are hopefully well-rounded people with lots of other interests besides our 9 to 5 job or whatever hours that you typically work in the day.

Don [00:15:17] And when they tell you what their favorite things to do when they’re not at the office, a great opportunity to come in and empathize or validate. Oh, me too. I love reading on the weekends or I love taking hikes in the mountains. So don’t don’t just like listen and nod, but you know, throw in some relational statements to demonstrate how there’s some similarity or connection between the two of you.

Kelly [00:15:40] One of the things I think you’re really great at Don is this particular thing you latch on to understanding what your employees really enjoy doing outside of work and often if you come across an article or a resource that relates to that you’ll pass it along any time, send it in a text message or in a slack conversation or in a verbal conversation with one of us.

Kelly [00:16:02] So say I really enjoy hiking on the weekends and you find an article on best hiking trails and the state of Virginia and you’ll pass that along to me. And it helps me remember that you remember that I care about that, that you are attentive to that, and that you’re thinking about me and the things that I’m interested in outside of work beyond their 9 to 5 job.

Don [00:16:23] Yeah I’m a little worried though about Rebecca on our team. She teaches trapeze and that’s just something that I not sure, way outside my wheelhouse. I can’t empathize with that at all, swinging around like she does up in the air is just remarkable. But we want to find out what interests people and then come alongside that interest and let them know we share it too.

Kelly [00:16:42] And these might feel like common sense questions but it is so easy for us to forget to look at the other person in front of us that’s doing a job for us and with us as a human, as a person that has something to offer beyond what they’re contributing to the workplace.

Don [00:17:00] So I want to go to this next category. So that was questions about building relationship and trust. Questions to offer feedback. This is another really important area where instead of just giving feedback to someone just top-down and hierarchical. What are some questions that can get us into these feedback conversations?

Don [00:17:17] And I want to share one that that I talked about yesterday. I was in Raleigh Durham and working with a company. They are a wonderful company and we were talking about it. It was our workshop on recognition and feedback and we were in the feedback conversation part of it. And I just made one suggestion but it really resonated with them. So it’s top of mind for me.

Don [00:17:38] So the question is you’re going to meet with one of your employees. And this one-on-one feedback conversation. Ask them to come in and with a list of what they consider their strengths to be. So the question is, what are your strengths? What is it that you believe you do well?

Don [00:17:53] Now this is really important for a couple of reasons. One, if they believe that they are acting on their strengths at work, they’re more engaged. So we don’t want to have employees that feel they have certain strengths and then they never are able to use them at work. That is a disengaging condition, much more likely that they’re going to look for work elsewhere that will apply to those strengths.

Don [00:18:19] And the other thing you can do is they come in with those strengths listed and I love it when a manager says these are great. I love these but you know what Kelly, I think you’ve missed two other strengths that aren’t on the list that I think need to be there. You also do this and you also do that very very well. So it’s not only are they exploring their strengths and they come in to answer that question but now it’s another opportunity to give them feedback on what they do really really well.

Kelly [00:18:43] I think that’s really powerful. We’ve talked extensively on feedback. We’ve had a couple of episodes on that but feedback is, as we know, isn’t just a conversation where you’re telling them things. It’s a conversation where you’re inviting them to contribute and asking questions that do so.

Kelly [00:18:59] Some of the great questions you can ask in feedback conversations are, am I doing an effective job at linking your work to key priorities, or, our work as a team to key priorities? You’re inviting that feedback from the employee themselves.

Kelly [00:19:13] Asking what are the most important things you’d like to accomplish this year, gets at what they care about or what they see their priorities are. And that can help course correct, if needed, or help them make that happen if they have some great ideas that aren’t on your radar yet. Asking what if anything is getting in the way of you performing effectively? What can you do to help them perform more effectively? What are some of the frustrations or barriers or roadblocks they’re facing? And asking what if anything is getting in the way of you performing effectively, can help get at the heart of that.

Don [00:19:43] Those are great tips. I want to go on to this third category we talked about and that’s questions to challenge personal and professional growth. Where often is managers trying to redirect or realign people. The old model is just top-down and tell them this is a better way to ask questions to get them to explore what they’re doing and how it’s working. What are some key questions in here?

Kelly [00:20:08] Well this is a really important topic because one of our key drivers of engagement in our survey measures if a supervisor cares about an employee’s personal and professional growth. We know that this directly correlates to engagement.

Kelly [00:20:21] So some questions a leader could ask that do correlate with this are, what are the most exciting parts of your job and why? What are the most challenging parts of your job? What could I do to help you make this role more rewarding? Where would you like to go in our organization? That’s a huge one. People have dreams and aspirations. They’re not going to be in the role that you have them in for the rest of their lives. And if you’re not inviting in into conversation they’re personal professional growth inside that organization especially the younger generations, they’re going to be looking for that conversation elsewhere.

Don [00:20:54] We talk about the limbic system and how one of the questions it asks is, what’s next? And so answering this question of what’s next isn’t just about you know this week or this month but what’s next for my career here?

Don [00:21:08] There’s another aspect to this about improving people’s personal growth and what they’re doing professionally in the organization and that is to help them start the day with intentionality. And if an employee starts the day with a specific intention they’re actually much more likely to accomplish it.

Kelly [00:21:24] So a great question is, Kelly, what is it you need to get done today? What’s number one? What’s your have to get done today issue? And I ask that as a question just so that you’ll tell me. What it does is it encourages you to focus, to think of that one thing you really want and need to get done that day. And then as a result of that question, you’re actually more likely to do it. So I don’t need to tell you to go do this or that, you’re going to identify it and then and you’re going to be more likely to do it.

Kelly [00:21:51] It’s the ownership piece.

Kelly [00:21:52] In the last category is around gaining insider knowledge. The leader doesn’t know everything and trying to pretend that you know everything is really just a recipe for frustration and disaster for your team. So if you want to help your employees perform better, perform more effectively, feel more engaged in and essentially thrive in the workplace, what kinds of questions can you ask as a leader to gain insight or knowledge into their experiences? And how you can help them thrive essentially?

Kelly [00:22:18] So some great questions around that are, is there anything that’s getting in the way of you performing effectively? If I could give you any additional resources where would you like me to put those? Where would you invest them in? How could that be helpful for you? And, here’s a really interesting one I like because a lot of the questions that we ask in our survey a manager has a lot of direct control over contributing to an employee’s growth and engagement.

Kelly [00:22:40] But one of the questions that we ask that especially middle managers don’t have direct control in is, how the senior leaders in the organization are effectively leading or communicating to the entire organization. Unless you’re at the top you don’t have full control over that but you do have some influence in how things are communicated or developed in your organization and you have a voice to manage up essentially when you’re a middle manager, to say this is something that my team members are saying or this is what I’m hearing. What can we do about it?

Kelly [00:23:12] So this question I really like. What could leadership do to communicate more effectively to the organization? What would be helpful there? And that way you’re getting insight on what you can manage up to be the advocate for your team regardless of where you are in the organization.

Don [00:23:27] Yeah that works really well. There a couple other things I want to add in here on this. When asking questions like some of these especially when it’s a related to the job or what the team is doing, we are hardwired as we’ve talked about since the beginning, to be in a group to work together to load share if you will.

Don [00:23:45] If managers are asking a question about performance or something the team needs to get done like a project, a goal, an objective, don’t always ask the questions to the individual. Ask the questions to the team. And ask the team to come together to answer that question so that they can collaborate and do it as a group.

Don [00:24:04] The more it’s work-related, the question is work-related and task-related, the easier it is for the individual employee to answer if they can do so by load sharing with others.

Don [00:24:13] And, Kelly, there’s one other category I would like to add here to this kind of categories of questions and their benefits. And it’s asking questions that evoke an emotional response.

Don [00:24:24] That is, asking questions that go to the emotional experience of the employee themselves. And these questions are, what was that like for you when that happened when you heard that? What went on inside you? What were you thinking? You can ask them what they were thinking. It still is going to probably get to some kind of an emotional content.

Don [00:24:44] The other way that I believe this is important is sometimes managers will hear things, well all employees will hear things from a senior leader in the organization that are quite frankly the wrong message or poorly stated.

Don [00:24:59] A CEO says and each of you need to know, you need to step up because you all can be replaced and if someone said something horrible like that and actually they still do, what the manager can then do is to come back to that employee say, hey, when Don said that what was that like for you? What did you hear in that message? And can help them reframe it, think it through, come alongside them. And this is where a manager can use questions around someone’s emotional experience to help steer them away or around something that’s been communicated by a senior leader.

Kelly [00:25:31] I love that I think that’s such a great point. What do you do if you’re asking a question of an employee and the response is essentially a shut down a negative response? A no. And you don’t feel like you have anywhere to go from there as the leader.

Don [00:25:46] That’s an interesting question, that came up yesterday in the workshop as well. I answer that two ways. So let’s come back to that question I brought up earlier. Hey, can we talk about this Kelly? And you might say, no, not really, don’t want to do that. So then so that’s like you’re giving me a stiff arm. So one response to that is to say, okay, help me understand why that conversation feels like it would be so hard. Obviously, you don’t want to do it. Help me understand why this conversation feels would feel difficult to you.

Don [00:26:17] So I’m going to continue to unpack that. Essentially why are you saying no. But I’m not saying why are you saying no. I’m saying, help me understand why this conversation would feel so difficult to you. That would be one response. The other response and this came up again, a question that was in yesterday’s workshop.

Don [00:26:33] I want to go to a core value. What managers are looking for is a reason to compel or impel an employee to respond. In other words, you can’t say no. You have to talk about this. This organization yesterday, one of their core values was, execute with excellence. And so, I’m gonna say okay, but one of our core values is to execute with excellence. It’s just key to who we are as a company. We can’t not talk about that work. We have to talk about how can we do this better. It’s one of our core values. And this helps to make core values more relevant.

Don [00:27:07] But managers completely underestimate in my experience, in our experience as a company, how those core values opened doors to conversations because the core values cut across every job description in the company and everybody has to buy into those core values when they except employment in the organization.

Kelly [00:27:26] That’s it for today. I’m your host, Kelly Burns and thank you for listening. Tune in to next week’s episode on pivot points, what they are and how to identify them with your employees.

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