Research Essentials: Asking Better Questions

At an all staff meeting, an employee who is normally quiet has a dramatic outburst. This unsettles the team and ends the meeting, leaving you to figure out what to do. Concerned about this unusual behavior, you ask the employee to come to your office later in the day. 

"What was that, at the meeting earlier?" you probe. 

"Nothing, just some personal stuff. Won't happen again," they reply quickly. Satisfied, since this was a one time thing, you thank them and send them back to their work. 

Except, it wasn't a one time thing and the employee has more outbursts, followed by more times in your office. The cycle escalates until you eventually let the employee go, after a particularly botched project. Shame, though, because they were once one of the best you had. In their exit interview, you discover that they discovered their spouse cheating on them on the same day they got assigned a project they felt was too big for them. This combined to a spiral of panic and explained the change in behavior. 

The above scenario is not as uncommon as you may think. Well, perhaps it doesn't escalate to termination all the time, but the emotions are common. Good leaders care about their team and I'm positive that you, dear reader, are no exception. If one of your people isn't working at their normal level, you notice and are concerned. You probably don't want to pry into their lives and you want to maintain proper professional boundaries, but you strive to create a work environment where everyone can thrive and so you're concerned. 

The problem is, you're also busy. So you may end up asking a question that skims the surface in such a normal way that the employee responds but doesn't answer. 

What do I mean? Let me tell the above story again, this time with a stronger question. 

At an all staff meeting, an employee who is normally quiet has a dramatic outburst. This unsettles the team and ends the meeting, leaving you to figure out what to do. Concerned about this unusual behavior, you ask the employee to come to your office later in the day. 

"I noticed that right after we went over your portion of the Mammoth project, you got antsy, which isn't really like you. Do you need more time or resources? Or is it something else?"

  "active listening" is listening in a way that validates the person speaking that they have been heard    image credit:  pixnio

"active listening" is listening in a way that validates the person speaking that they have been heard

image credit: pixnio

Now, your employee could totally blow you off, and their ego might mean that they'll tell you everything is fine and we still lead to the above scenario. Those folks are rare, though. More common are the folks who feel overwhelmed but unheard, afraid to voice concerns over fears of judgment or punishment, or whose lives have bled into their ability to cope. By asking a question phrased in a way that shows you already see them, the opportunity is opened for a further conversation. This requires active listening, by the way. A topic for another post. 

If nothing else, the next time that person had uncharacteristic behavior, you can follow up stronger. "The last time this happened, you told me you were fine, but I'm seeing more evidence that might not be correct. How can I help? What do you need?" 

Asking stronger questions - ones that have evidence in them that you've observed something - can lead to more specific answers. Having more specific answers can lead to stronger strategic decisions, which is something everyone needs. As I mentioned above, all of this requires better, more active listening to absorb context. Our next research essentials post will cover just that.