3 questions for a productive workforce

3 types of questions “accidental managers” need to start asking – to cultivate a more valued, engaged and productive workforce

An ‘accidental manager’ is someone who is given people management responsibilities despite having no structured training or guidance on how to manage people. Typically, accidental managers are promoted because of their technical strengths; being the best in their department at a specific skill, so faulty logic dictates that leadership is the natural next step.

While particularly prevalent in the tech industry, the issue is across the board with the Chartered Management Institute estimating that 70–80% of managers promoted into their roles in the UK are accidental managers. Being let loose on teams without the required skills to properly manage them, these ill-equipped managers are having a negative impact on employee productivity and engagement which lags well behind our G7 partners. 

3 questions for a productive workforce

Whilst this might be masked to some extent by the tech industry’s reliance on more of an Agile vs. ‘command-and-control’ approach for encouraging collaboration and engagement, there is still one key skill missing. So, what can accidental managers do to better prepare themselves as they step up to take on the mantle of manager?

In order to truly engage the expertise of each individual in the team, and in turn be able to offer well-intentioned constructive and developmental feedback, managers must learn to ask more powerful questions.

Questions are the keys to increasing the performance and engagement of others. As a new manager, your team will be coming to you with problems that they’re facing, but you must learn to resist the urge to fix and provide solutions for them based on your own experience. Instead, learning to adapt your style of behaviour and developing the ability to ask insightful questions designed to stimulate each employees’ thinking will help them to work through issues and find solutions themselves.

As a manager, you are still responsible for the outcome, but by growing your team’s confidence to become independent problem-solvers rather than just ‘telling’ them what to do, you are creating a shared ownership of that outcome. This provides the opportunity for continual personal and professional development that benefits the employee, in turn making them more efficient in the face of change and more driven in their role. 

Using this enquiry-led approach is a powerful way of stimulating deeper reflection, tapping in to better quality thinking that generates valuable ideas and innovations that each employee can bring to the team. Developing a mindset to ask questions for the benefit of the other person’s thinking can start with asking questions to help them zero in more effectively on what has to change about the problem presented, before trying to address the solution.  Three types of questions can help here: 

Clarify questions 

These tend to be more factually orientated than other questions. They can help bring focus to the issue or can clarify pertinent details. Example questions might include these:

What’s the crux of the issue?

What outcome do we need?

What actions have you taken already?

What do you want to move forward on?

What’s important to note here is that you may only need to ask one or two questions to identify the crux of the matter (i.e., what is it that needs to be resolved?). The second that you sense that you want to learn more and gather more facts, you’re falling back into the trap of taking on the problem yourself.

Compare questions 

These questions can help the other person to gain a sense of perspective by having them consider the actual scale of the issue against other comparators:

Better than who/what?

More than who/what?

Faster by how much?

How many compared to last month?

Sometimes, a Compare-type question is all it takes to de-escalate the urgency (by putting it into perspective) and help a colleague see that they’re more than capable of dealing with the issue themself.

Explore questions 

These questions can also help to develop the other person’s thinking about the situation they’re facing (and also be used again to explore possible actions later on):

How might you…?

What else…?

What would need to change?

What makes you say that?

What is your concern about?

Using Clarify, Compare and Explore questions can narrow down the scope and focus of the conversation you’re having quickly onto the most important aspects that need addressing and what specifically needs to change. Developing the skill of asking more powerful questions in the moment allows managers to respond swiftly, efficiently and effectively to issues by engaging others in resolving them effectively, which in turn drives higher productivity levels in their teams. 

Dominic and Laura Ashley-Timms are the co-founders of performance improvement consultancy Notion and co-creators of the multi-award-winning and academically proven STAR® Manager programme, designed to help leaders and managers adopt an Operational Coaching style of management. They recently co-authored the bestselling new book The Answer is a Question, which has been shortlisted for the Business Book of the Year award for 2023.

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