The 5 Smartest Questions A Manager Can Ask Employees

Raise them early and often or risk learning the answers in employee exit interviews.

Bob is the accounting manager of a large paper supply company. One of his instructions, as he was leaving for a two-week vacation, was to Cameron, who had been on his staff for less than 6 months. “I’m counting on you to get the month-end management report done while I’m gone.”

Cameron readily agreed. At this point, it would have been a good idea for Bob to use questions to make sure Cameron understood what he meant by “get the report done.” You see, Cameron had been producing that report since he started with the department and his usual methodology was to deliver it to Bob’s office when it was completed. In THIS case, since Bob was going to be gone when management expected to receive it, he thought Cameron would intuitively understand that he also wanted him to distribute the report to the entire management team. You can figure out the rest of the story.

One of your most effective tools as a manager is to communicate as much information as needed for employees to perform as you want. Handle this critical task skillfully, and you can empower your people; fumble it, and you’ll surely hobble them and your organization. A surefire approach is to ask employees questions – provided they’re the right questions.

Here are five perceptive inquiries that invariably foster constructive communication. Try them, and you’ll find employees more willing and able to do what you need them to.

1. What obstacles keep you from doing your best work? A manager’s main task is to clear the way for her people to do their jobs. Asking what hinders them reveals exactly what managerial action to take. You may learn of missing data, inadequate equipment, lack of skills or knowledge, too many interruptions or a “no-win” workload. Whatever deficiencies this question uncovers, it always provides a big payoff by focusing you on tangible steps that will directly and measurably boost employee performance.

2. What is the most effective way for me to manage you? Just as every manager has her own “style” of directing her staff, so every employee has a need to be managed in a particular way. This question enables you to put performance requirements on employees as individuals, significantly increasing the chances that your expectations will be met or exceeded. You will hear a variety of responses:

  • “Tell me precisely what you want, then let me at it.” (The efficient independent.)
  • “I want daily feedback and assurance.” (The teamworker.)
  • “Tell me often how well I’m doing.” (The applause seeker.)
  • “Give me all the data you have and let me know if any is missing.” (The analyst.)

By the way, the enhanced performance you’ll see from using this question underscores the value of following “The Platinum Rule” preached by business relationships expert Tony Alessandra: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

3. When you make a mistake, how do you want me to bring it to your attention?
Employees vary in their tolerance for discussion of their errors, and it’s up to you to identify how to give suggestions for improvement in a way that is absorbed and acted upon. Often-heard responses include:

  • “In writing, with specifics.”
  • “Orally, with specific feedback.” (Some people are shy or embarrassed when they make a mistake. In conversation, you can pause to give them a chance to absorb conclusions before responding.)
  • “Brainstorm with me on how to fix things.” (Other people are eager to understand how and why the error occurred and do their best thinking aloud.)
  • “Let me to figure out by myself how to remedy things.”

Asking for a preferred method of receiving feedback recruits the employee to the view that discussing errors is necessary and a good thing. Plus, it puts you both on the same side of the issue from the start.

When you do something well, how do you want me to bring it to your attention? This is the flip side of Question Three and is effective for the same reasons. In reply, you may hear:

  • “In writing, with specific feedback.”
  • “Orally, with specific feedback.”
  • “Publicly (or privately)”

Some employees want their achievements broadcast, and in their presence. Others would rather die than receive public kudos. It’s important to know which the case is if you want your acknowledgement to be received as encouraging.

5. What could another company (or department) offer you that would cause you to leave? In satisfaction survey after survey, employees put less weight on pay and benefits than on being listened to and recognized for their efforts. Because everyone wants to “fit in” and feel respected on the job, this question can tease out the rewards it will take to make people value their work, their contributions, their teammates – and their connection to you as their supervisor or manager.

Certainly there are many more and other key questions that successful managers ask their employees. But these five are unique in their power to help bring out the best in the people you lead, so that they enjoy their jobs, show loyalty to your organization and work productively.