4 questions to ask your team members

Knowing how to ask the right questions can be the difference between being an okay manager and a great one.

Asking employees the four questions below will get you insight into your team members and their work, help you understand where you can be the most useful, in many cases improve your team’s work product, and even increase people’s morale.

1. What’s worrying you right now?

You might assume that you’ll hear about it when an employee is worried about a project or a deadline or a difficult client, but in reality, many employees assume that they’re supposed to handle this kind of thing without involving you. Asking this question can open to door to all kinds of information and concerns that you might never hear about otherwise. You might end up learning that about a client who’s about to very upset by something, or that another department isn’t getting your employee what she needs quickly enough, or that your employee has real concerns about the strategy she’s overseeing. Hearing this kind of thing gives you a chance to give input and guidance, intervene where you need to, and help your staff member think through solutions and course-correct when necessary.

2. What’s going really well right now?

This question can elicit things that your employee is really excited about (which may be things you don’t realize they’re highly motivated by), and talking about it can give them a sense of accomplishment and progress. Plus, you might learn details that you didn’t know about – things your team is doing that make you proud.

And if you follow up by asking about why they think it’s going so well, you and the employee both might be able to draw out valuable lessons that can be used in the future.

3. What should we be doing differently?

Your employees have a different perspective on some things than you, because they’re more deeply involved in some areas, less involved in others, and simply have a different vantage point than you do. They likely have thoughts on what could be done differently or better, but people don’t always speak up about this kind of thing – because they have their hands full with their core jobs, or they’re not sure that a suggestion of change would be welcome, or it just hasn’t occurred to them that you’d want their thoughts.

Explicitly asking people to talk with you about what could be done differently reinforces that you welcome their input and that you’re open to change – and can result in you making improvements in areas where you didn’t even know improvement was needed.

4. What do we need to do to get you to sign on for another year?

Sometimes the reason managers lose their best people is because they never actually asked them to stay. It sounds obvious, but when’s the last time you talked to your highest performers about how to retain them? Even if you don’t get an immediate commitment, having an explicit discussion and showing that you care enough to talk about it can have a significant impact on how valued people feel and whether they stick around.

Of course, you also need other retention strategies in the mix, including salary, professional growth, new challenges, and so forth – but don’t underestimate the power of a direct conversation about someone’s future.

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Mean Something*

    I like these, not least because they are very widely applicable across fields and types of managerial role. My role as a high school department chair does not always involve the kind of managerial authority that is sometimes assumed in other fields, but these are all questions I can ask teachers in the department I lead.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      My mind went to jane fondas character in 9-5 but now i can totally see tootsie

    2. grasshopper*

      I saw Tootsie too! The hair, the glasses, the velvet blazer, the fist under the chin pose – it all adds up to Tootsie!

    1. Rorschach clip art*

      Grr… that was supposed to be in response to Formica. But since I’m here, I actually also loved the tips themselves. I can tell you that I would have loved to hear a manager ask me these questions. Without some kind of a check-in, it really seems like they don’t care, whether or not that’s true.

  2. SevenSixOne*

    Yeah, I’ve had managers ask the questions… only to ignore the answers, get defensive, or shame people for giving input that’s anything but 100% what the manager wants to hear. I think that kind of reaction is even more frustrating than never checking in at all.

    Managers, don’t bother asking the questions if you aren’t willing to really listen to the answers, make an effort to implement the suggestions keep hearing, and then start over asking NEW questions a little while later.

    1. Overcast*

      That kind of response torpedoes my ability to trust management in all areas.

      (It’s goal-setting season at work and all I can think of in response to “what can I do [as your manager] to better support you?” is “please quit.”)

  3. Stranger than fiction*

    My manager is great at checking in or even if i just want to vent the door is open. We totally see eye to eye on what’s dysfunctional and never gonna change so at least we can get stuff off our chest

  4. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

    I was on the verge of leaving my job about 18 month ago, and as silly as it sounds, I took another look and decided to stay because the committee doing my evaluation said, “We really want you to stay here, and we want you to be happy here”. I wish they had followed that up by asking me what it would take (at the time $ wasn’t an option), because I had a simple answer (I could have given it anyway, but didn’t think to in the moment). But it really meant a lot to me. In 9 years, nobody had every explicitly told me that they wanted me to stay. And when you report to a board (which can be so fickle and unpredictable), you just sort of bounce between wondering if they absolutely love you are are just too lazy to get rid of you. I don’t plan to stay forever, but it was the boost I needed to hang in there through a rough spot.

  5. Overcast*

    1. I’m worried that the new employee recognition program is just a popularity contest where the employees vote, the management decides who they want to win anyway and the prizes don’t matter.

    2. Um, well… We’ve really stepped up the time waste in our meetings lately, so that initiative is taking off.

    3. Literally everything. Where do I start?

    4. Dissolve antidepressants into the water cooler and pass out warm cookies when the office opens.

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