How to ask your employees the right questions, the right way.

Dilbert Asking.jpg

Any time a group of research subjects are asked what they want or need from their manager/boss at work, some version of “caring and respect” usually comes out on top. This doesn’t mean they want to be friends or that they’re looking for hugs or anything like that. It simply speaks to the very human need to be cared about by people who have authority over us. John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, noted that “human beings are looking to be loved and approved of by someone in a position of authority.” 
One of the best ways to demonstrate to your employees that you have their best interests at heart is to ask them questions in a spirit of “I truly value your opinion.” The best way to ask these questions is to follow two basic rules:

  1. Ask open-ended questions

  2. Include “permission for critique” right in the question.

Open-ended questions:These are questions that require a full answer, using the person’s own knowledge or experiences or feelings. These questions tend to result in an explanation, as opposed to one-word answers like “yes,” “no,” or “fine.”

Here are examples of closed-ended questions: “Do you feel good about the training opportunities being offered to you?” or “How do you feel about the training program for new hires?” See how these questions can be answered with a single word, either a “yes,” “no,” “fine” or “good?”

Here are examples of open-ended questions:“What do you like about the training program? What would you change about it if you could?” or “What did you learn from the training you attended yesterday?”

Open-ended questions are one of the best ways to engage people in thoughtful dialogue, inviting them to truly share their opinions, thoughts and feelings, which can be a huge bonus in terms of pushing past some of the awkwardness that results from a power differential.

Include “permission for critique” right in the question:Closed-ended questions tend to be interpreted as “leading,” especially when asked from a place of power or authority. When your boss asks you, “How am I doing as a manager?” you will likely assume (whether true or not) that he or she is kind of hoping that your answer will be somewhere along the continuum between “fine” and “you rock – you’re the best manager who has ever existed in the history of hierarchical organizations.” Therefore, it would be relatively difficult for you to get up the nerve to say, “Well, actually….[insert negative opinion here].”

Instead, what if you made it clear by the way you phrased your question that a not-so-rosy opinion was perfectly acceptable, if not even desired?

Here are examples of not-so-good questions (they are closed-ended and phrased in an “I’m-hoping-for-a-positive-answer” manner), paired with a more effective way of asking the question (open-ended with “permission for critique” built right in).


Regarding questions about employees’ personal lives: While we don’t advise you ask a lot of personal questions about their life outside of work - this can feel intrusive - do feel free to make the occasional inquiry into how their family is doing, what they enjoyed about their vacation, or how their landscaping project is going. This can be money in the relationship bank account, and don’t worry about the above “rules” – close-ended questions are perfectly fine here. (“How was your vacation?”)

The Bottom line: Build trust and respect with your employees through respectful, sincere inquiry. (Watch our video on building high morale HERE.)