We all know that effectively managing employees is key to the success of our business. We variously rely on our employees to serve our customers/clients, to market and sell the goods and services of the business and to implement the processes and systems that keep the business flowing.

As business owners or managers, we can’t be there all the time, so it’s absolutely critical that our employees clearly understand what is expected of them. This in turn means that our ability to effectively communicate with our employees can have a direct and significant impact on the performance of the business.

Despite the importance of leaders and managers being able to effectively communicate with their employees, it tends to be an area that presents its fair share of challenges. In some cases this may be due to a lack of time, and in other cases it may be due to the lack of systems or processes to facilitate effective communication. In many cases however, the communication skills of individual managers and leaders may need refinement. 

Ask Don’t Tell 

One of the simplest yet most powerful techniques I’ve come across for helping managers to more effectively communicate with their employees (and others for that matter), involves the use of “Thinking Questions”. 

Thinking Questions help us action the old principle of “Ask Don’t Tell”. To illustrate the point, if an employee comes to us with a problem and we immediately give them a clear instruction about what to do, several things can happen:

  • they proceed to do what we want/expect/require (terrific!)
  • while they carry out the task, they may not really understand why it’s the correct thing to do (not so good)
  • they might see us as the fountain of all knowledge, the one who can solve their problems, to such an extent that over time they stop thinking for themselves altogether (disaster!) 

Use Thinking Questions 

Using thinking questions helps people think for themselves – rather than a controller or director of work, you become a coach and support person – equipping your team and setting clear expectations that they are to resolve all but the most critical/difficult problems, identify and pursue opportunities for improvement and accept a greater level of personal responsibility for their work.

Asking thinking questions means you are now focused on one thing: people’s thinking. If people are being paid to think, isn’t it about time we helped them improve their thinking?

by David Rock, in “Quiet Leadership”, Collins, 2006

The technique is deceptively simple – thinking questions involve asking questions with the word “think” in them. Consider these examples and how you might apply them in discussions with your employees: 

  • How long have you been thinking about this?
  • How often do you think about this? 
  • What priority do you think this should be?
  • Can you see any gaps in your thinking
  • How do you think we can proceed?
  • How do you think others might respond?
  • How do you think that might impact the budget?
  • Do you think that is a realistic goal?
  • Who else do you think you should talk to?
  • Do you think anyone else could make a contribution?

Yes, using thinking questions does take a bit longer in the short-term, but think of the potential longer-term benefits – employees able to think for themselves, to effectively resolve all but the most difficult issues, a clear expectation that they identify and pursue opportunities for improvement, and that while we are there to support them and help them grow, they are directly responsible for their own performance. 

Thinking questions – give them some thought!