Much of a leader’s day is spent asking for information from employees. You regularly engage in asking a staff member for a progress update on a project, for example. However, many leaders don’t typically think about question-asking as a skill that can lead to deeper relationships, deeper engagement, or better business practices.

If this sounds like you, you are missing out on a critical opportunity to lead your team and your business to new heights. Asking questions is a powerful tool for leaders to gain important insight. It allows managers to show empathy and provide validation to their employees. It also encourages learning and idea exchange, drives innovation and improved performance, and strengthens trust among team members.

When you listen empathetically and ask thoughtful questions, it shows your team you care. When your people know you care, you are creating emotional velcro that enables each team member to feel safe, connected, and valued. You can’t expect people to just come to you and share everything, you have to build trust and rapport first. You have to get out of your own mind and your own projects, and be attentive to their world.

Use these guidelines to help you ask better questions and gain insight into how you can improve your employees’ experience and the organization as a whole:

Use questions to build relationships and trust with employees.

When you ask your employees questions, it provides them with validation and helps you establish the safe and secure workplace that they need to do their best work. You may be concerned that asking your employees questions will be too invasive, but it’s a critical part of developing strong relationships at work and demonstrates to employees that you value their input.

There are many questions that you can ask to learn more about your staff members that won’t appear intrusive. Example: How was your weekend? Dig deeper to learn more information from your employee by asking: What did you do this weekend?

As you’re continuing to build those relationships with your employees, some great questions to ask include:

What makes you proud to work for our organization?

What makes you proud of the work you do?

What are some of your favorite things to do outside of work?

Asking questions like these are great opportunities to emphasize and validate. In your response, use relational statements to demonstrate how there’s some similarities or connection between you and the employee. Find out what interests your employee, and then come alongside that interest, and let them know you share it too. For example, if you find out your employee enjoys canoeing, let them know if you do as well and use it as a good topic of discussion to get the know them better. Go even further to build the relationship by sending to the employee an article or resource that you come across with the best places to go canoeing.

Ask follow-up questions.

Follow-up questions signal to the employee that you’re listening to what they’re saying, you care, and you would like to know more. When people have a conversation with someone who poses several follow-up questions, they feel heard and respected.

When asking follow-up questions, use information from the employee’s response to the previous question you asked in order to dig deeper to learn more about them. This signals to the employee that you value what they’re talking about and want to learn more.

Be aware when you should keep questions open-ended.

Some types of questions can force staff into simply answering “yes” or “no.” Avoid making your employees feel like they are being interrogated. Open-ended questions help counteract that effect, which makes them useful in learning something new or uncovering information. Here are some closed-ended questions to avoid and better questions to ask instead:

Closed-Ended, Yes/No Questions Ask These Open-Ended Questions Instead
Did you finish the project? Tell me about the project you’ve been working on, and what have you been learning from it?
Do you need any resources to help you with the project? What resources can I provide for you to help you with the project?
Did you learn some useful information at the conference? What did you learn at the conference that will help you do your job better?
Will you be able to meet that deadline for the project? How does that deadline feel for the project to be completed? What can I do to equip you with everything you need to meet the deadline?
Do you enjoy your job? What are the most exciting parts of your job?
Is there anything that’s getting in the way of you performing effectively? What challenges are you finding are preventing you from performing your job as effectively as you would like?

Use the correct tone.

People are more willing to answers questions honestly when you ask them in a casual manner instead of formally. They also tend to be more forthcoming with questions when you give them an “out” in the conversation. When people are told they can change their answers at any time, for example, they open up more, even though they typically don’t change their answers. Simply stating that the employee can change his or her answers any time allows the conversation to become safer and more judgment free for them. This is useful to employ when you want to dig deeper for more information and allow the employee to feel more comfortable in the conversation.

Whether you’re having a casual check-in or leading a more formal feedback conversation, ask the following questions to signal to your employees that you care about and support them:

What do you enjoy most about your job?

What are you most excited about when you consider your future with the company?

What are some challenges you have experienced here? How can I help you overcome them?

Are we doing anything that is no longer important or effective as an organization that we should discontinue?

What are the most critical projects/initiatives for your role in the near-term? Long term?

Is there anything I can do to support you as you pursue your goals?

Based on your experience, how would you describe the culture of this organization?

Are there any resources lacking (people, training, technology, etc.) that would help you perform even better?

Don’t underestimate the power of asking questions. Questions can be an incredible source of information into how your employees view their work experience and a tool to develop a more engaged and thriving staff.

Key Takeaways

  • When you ask your employees questions, you’re taking advantage of an important opportunity to gain greater insight into their experience and ways to improve your workplace.
  • Asking questions strengthens your emotional intelligence, which in turn helps you to become a better questioner. That’s why it’s essential to pose more questions to your employees.
  • Leverage follow-up questions and open-ended questions, and be aware of your tone in order to make the most out of asking your employees questions.

Adapted from: The Surprising Power of Questions, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John, Harvard Business Review.

Are you looking for more guidance on mastering the art of asking questions? Check out our most recent episode of Thrive By Design: The Podcast for more sample questions and strategies for asking effective questions.