To Get Answers…Start with the Right Questions

One of the easiest, cheapest and perhaps the most important way to find out what is on employee’s minds is to simply ask them. Sounds pretty basic, yet uncovering meaningful information about what employees are really thinking and feeling takes focus, skill and knowing what questions to ask.

In my last article, Strengthen Commitment: Focus on What Employees Think and Feel, I discussed the importance of building both rational and emotional commitment as an important contributor to employee engagement. Uncovering what employees think and feel can be accomplished in a variety of ways. More formal approaches include analyzing performance metrics and employee opinion survey data. Informal day-to-day methods include observing behavior and engaging in meaningful conversation.

Every conversation is a chance to uncover information about what employees think and feel if you know the right questions to ask. The book, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, describes the aim of dialogue, or the goal of conversation, is to create a pool of shared meaning. Before, during, and after managers and supervisors share information, feedback, objectives, expectations and results, it is important to simultaneously collect information from employees. Uncovering the other person’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions and expectations is crucial to meaningful, productive dialogue and crucial to building a culture of employee engagement.

Asking questions is a primary step in achieving that goal. Unlike the 1940s game of Twenty Questions, where questions had only yes or no answers, open-ended questions yield the most insight. Here are 20 questions you can utilize in employee conversations.

Questions to Uncover Employee’s Thoughts

  1. What do you think about this?
  2. Why do you think that?
  3. How is this different than what you were thinking?
  4. What is your understanding of-¦?
  5. What is your opinion?
  6. What do you believe to be true?
  7. How would this make more sense to you?
  8. How did you come to that conclusion?
  9. What ideas do you have?
  10. What else are you thinking about?

Questions to Uncover Employee’s Feelings

  1. How do you feel about that?
  2. How does this make you feel?
  3. Why do you feel that way?
  4. What does this mean to you?
  5. What outcome would be best for you?
  6. What is your reaction to-¦?
  7. How does this resonate with you?
  8. How comfortable are you with-¦?
  9. How do you think this will affect you?
  10. What is your impression of-¦?

If the response to your questions is often short or even non-existent or if you have difficulty uncovering meaningful information; don’t feel discouraged. The key is to use effective probing techniques. The well known phrase, “peeling back the layers of the onion,” is a great analogy to describe probing. How an employee answers your initial question, will determine your next question, and so on. I recommend starting out with questions to uncover what employees are thinking, then move onto questions about what employees are feeling, alternating back and forth as the opportunity presents itself.

Generally speaking, most managers and supervisors are more comfortable asking questions to uncover what employees are thinking. After all, it seems more businesslike. Asking how employees feel about something can make managers feel awkward or uncomfortable. Employees may also be more reluctant to share their feelings; doing so can make them feel vulnerable.

It’s important that when employees honestly share how they feel, managers don’t discount their feelings, or hold it against them. Instead, managers should demonstrate respect and acknowledge their feelings, using the information as an opportunity to ask “why” and continue peeling back the layers of the onion so to speak. Practice your probing techniques and work at building trust and creating a safe environment for open, honest dialogue. Look for opportunities to take action on ideas and/or concerns. Always be genuine and acknowledge the employee’s feedback.

Getting employees to open up and share their thoughts and feelings starts with asking the right questions. The more you incorporate both thinking and feeling questions into your every day conversations, the more information you will uncover. Your discoveries can lead to variety of positive outcomes, including process improvements, cost savings, increased revenue and increased employee engagement just to name a few.

Diana Moss is senior director of Employee Engagement and Employee Relations for Comcast, one of “Chicago’s 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For.” She can be reached at [email protected].