Better Answers Come From Great Questions

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Over the years, I have encountered people on teams who seem unmotivated or unwilling to talk or share information during performance reviews. During the reviews, they are answering “with the usual” to questions that we give them every time. “What are your accomplishments, achievements?”  “What would want to improve on and why?” “What do you want to do next time?”

An excellent book and wonderful resource for me is Smart Questions: The Essential Strategy for Successful Managers by Dorothy Leeds.  Having been through these experiences where employees are unwilling to talk, I have some ideas to share that could help those employers wondering how to best proceed.


Prepare for the Conversation
Before conducting your next employee performance review, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why should the employee want to talk with me, make the changes I want? What would be in it for the employee?
  • What’s the best way for me to handle the situation; what’s my approach? What was my approach in the past? Does it still work? How should I change it?
  • Can I listen to the employee’s criticism of the situation, circumstances, team, etc.?
  • What might the employee need to achieve? What will I need to do to help her or him achieve the objectives?
  • How should I check in with the employee as a follow-up? How do I make sure both of us fulfill what we committed to do?


Find the Employee’s Comfort Zone
Think about what puts the employee at ease. Think of times and situations where the employee was talking quite excitedly. Perhaps you can ask a trusted supervisor or manager for some insight.

Think about where to have the conversation. Location and who is around may influence the amount and quality of your responses. Don’t surprise someone by taking them out to lunch or a breakfast one-on-one if you haven’t done it before. Maybe start with a short conversation in the office, make some progress with the employee, and then invite them to talk further offsite.

Start with easy questions—ones where you will get some response. You can start with casual questions about topics unrelated to the actual conversation. Be sincere in wanting to listen to the employee and don’t go overboard in asking these unrelated questions.

Start with questions that are general observations on the topic you want to talk about, then delve deeper.


Be Ready to Delve into the Responses You Get
When you are starting the conversation and asking the questions, avoid language (body and spoken) that can put the employee on the defensive. “Why” is a question you want to avoid; it instantly puts reluctant people on the defensive. Look for alternative wording, starting with “How”, “Under what circumstances” or “When.”

Explore what someone gives you as an answer. For the basic answers, ask for more details about other situations, other alternatives. Try to break down the complex questions into a series of basic questions that are layered and build off each other.


How Should You Help?
Ask the employee what he or she thinks needs to be done. What would the employee like to see? By asking this, you are not giving all control in issue resolution to the employee, but you are opening up a dialog. Then, decide the next steps together.

This is for informative purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice. Consult experts and be aware of federal, local and state regulations and exceptions.

Mary DunlapMary Dunlap, CFP®
Mary Dunlap Consulting
Pottstown, Pa.

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