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The Magic of Asking Questions

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A few weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker at a business conference and discussed the topic of leadership in business. As usual, after I completed the speech, I have several of the attendees come up and ask questions, make comments, get photos or hand me their business cards.

One man particularly caught my attention because he looked as if he just experienced a miracle. This gentleman was a business owner who had over one hundred employees. He brought up the title of my speech which was “The Magic of Asking Questions”. He told me that he has been managing people for over twenty years and this is the first time that he realized how wrong he was whenever he had to sit down and discuss a performance or quality problem with a team member. He said these meetings would usually be him telling the employee, at great length, what he or she did wrong, with no information or detail spared. After that, he would continue the meeting explaining what they need to do differently, and basically repeat in detail, the employees job responsibilities including every aspect as to how they should be performing their job. He told me this could take up a whole morning.

This situation is not much different in most every other business. The manager assumes what the deficiencies are and how to resolve them. In this case, he was under the assumption that employees performed poorly because they did not have the right information or knowledge to do it correctly or accurately, so his response was to give them that information. He said it worked sometimes, but in many cases, resulted in the employee repeating the same deficiencies. After a while he would assume the employee was doing this specifically to annoy him or they just didn’t care. Eventually he would terminate the employee because he believed this person was just not a match for his business.

I find this scenario to be a common mistake among leaders in any business. Rather than trying to identify the root cause of the deficiency, the actual problem is misdiagnosed, and the resulting communication or solution is presented without any consideration or idea as to what is really causing the symptoms.

When I am discussing “The Magic of Questions” I illustrate how to identify the real cause of the performance deficiency in an employee’s performance.  Let me explain this process.

First, anytime a deficiency is noticed, it requires immediate feedback. Do not be one of those people who chooses to avoid a problem and hoping it goes away or just fixes itself. To me, this is like getting a flat tire and instead of pulling over to change the tire, a driver continues down the road, hoping somehow it will go away and get better. Obviously, this is impossible, but this is exactly what it’s like when someone chooses to ignore problems that may be developing in their own business.

When it comes to employee performance problems, it is important to understand, that in order to determine the cause of the deficiency, we need to spend some time actually investigating what is happening. Nothing gets resolved if we immediately put blame on someone or a group and tell them things like, “You need to buckle down, or work harder!” Yeah, I’m sure that will fix it.

Here is how a deficiency at work needs to be handled:

First, you must respond immediately. Do not wait and see how long it can go on or decide you are too busy now. When I say respond immediately, that doesn’t mean we have an emotional outbreak and start screaming and blaming. It simply means that you take a moment to call or text the party involved and ask them what happened. Hopefully this short conversation will take care of it. Should the problem come up again and you realize that a phone call or brief conversation doesn’t fix it, it now requires a one-on-one meeting in your office.

The formal meeting should go like this:

First ask them if they understand why you are having the meeting, He or she should understand because you told them when you scheduled it. Let them talk and try to actually listen to their words. Please make sure you have a method to take notes, this is important. Next question is that you ask them what is going on? Yes, that is it, if they don’t know what you mean, simply say, what is happening that is causing this difficulty? What is going on? If they say something like I don’t know, give them time to think about it. You can even take a ten-minute break, leave them there with the door closed and let them think while you get coffee or do something else. When you come back, ask them the same question. Most likely, they will begin speaking. Listen and take notes. Of course, if their answer is that it is something beyond their control, you will have to investigate it. At this time, you may realize it is not their specific issue and may be something in the business process, another employee causing it, or something not within their scope of responsibility or control. If the answer is something that is within their control, you need to then ask, what do you believe needs to be done to resolve this issue. Keep in mind, this is now the employee’s deficiency that needs to be corrected by him, you can offer some help, but until they own it and admit their performance problem is a result of them not doing something correctly or they are too slow, or whatever, it is their issue that needs to be resolved, you cannot assume anything.

Once the employee has accepted responsibility, made recommendations for improvement, it is now appropriate to set a timeline. You can’t let this last forever. Next question you ask is; If we take the corrective action you mentioned, how long will it take to get you performing at an acceptable level, so we do not have to have meetings like this anymore? If you agree on the timeline, make sure you mark it in your calendar and they see you do it. The last question would be; So, let’s say we reached that date and this issue has not resolved itself and we continue having the same problems, what do you think should happen? At this point you are letting them decide what the alternative will be if nothing gets better. Most likely they will say something about not working there anymore or something that is obviously not good. You can discuss it, then agree to the outcome. Have everything typed up and make sure the employee signs and agrees to the plan. Now, you just turned over the responsibility for improvement to the employee. This does not mean you may ignore him until the last day, it is still important to be a coach, let him know when he is doing better, ask what happened when he had a bad week. Either way, feedback is so very important at this point.

This whole meeting should be nothing but the manager asking questions, attempting to first, determine the root cause of the deficiency. If it is the employee causing the problem, the next series of questions will let the employee know that the situation is under their control and they must act to improve it, set a timeline and know the consequences, should the situation not improve or get worse.

It is all about the Magic of Asking Questions. It’s not about a business idea for a magical fix, a new training program or spending two hours explaining the importance of employee performance as relates to the business’ view of things. Ask questions, let them talk and let them figure out how to fix it. Odds of success are much higher if we just ask and really listen.

Next issue, I will be discussing the Five Reasons Why Employees Have Performance Problems.  Make sure you read that. It will be a good follow up to this article.

Frank Besednjak

Posted In: Management

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