A media director asked me for a simple, straightforward approach to developing his very new team’s knowledge and proficiency. He explained that he has no time or budget for formal training or workshops.
My strong recommendation: Ask questions! There’s nothing like a boss asking questions about why things are the way they are, or how things should be, to get employees focused and their brains working. When it’s their boss asking, employees will want to give an acceptable answer.
When they’re asked the right kinds of questions in a dispassionate, curious manner, employees learn that there’s more to take into account than just their own thoughts, and they’ll actually begin to think better. It’s as if you’re subtly giving them clues about what they could or should be thinking, without patronizing.
Walk the Walk to Talk the Talk
One very effective way to develop employees through questioning is to create a conversation while walking — either to discuss a particular issue or to set up a thought exercise or research topic for team members. It doesn’t need much time. During the two minutes it takes to walk from a meeting back to your workspaces, you could say: “I’d like you to think about this question and come back to me with an answer/for some follow-up discussion: Why might we want to do X?” Or: “If you had the chance, what’s the thing you’d want to experiment with in this area?”
As you draw employees out, you can learn more about their thought patterns and what their concerns and interests are. In turn, they can learn which factors or categories have importance for you. And the entire experience will feel more like a dialog than an interrogation.
Teaching through questions is much more effective than having employees simply come to you for answers. Say someone asks, “Boss, is it okay if I do thus-and-so on the 123 project?” and you answer quickly, “No, please do such-and-such instead.” That exchange may make clear what to do in the moment, but it won’t teach them any concepts that can be applied next time.
Once employees are in the habit of anticipating your questions, they’ll be thinking more deeply. Then, when you ask, “Have you considered the implications of doing X, or that you might need A, B, C, to be able to do X?”, they’ll be more likely to answer, “Ohhhhhh,” as if a new light has just dawned for them.
If you can get an “Ohhhhhh” every now and then, you’ll know they’re starting to have real insights. Plus, your questions won’t make your team members feel like you’re giving them extra tasks — instead, they’ll feel that they’re getting more of your time and attention.
Searching for Answers
And what’s one of the best things about development by asking questions? You. Don’t. Have. To. Call. A. Meeting. Or. Make. A. Plan. During meetings, though, questions can be used to liven things up — and simultaneously acquaint employees with additional useful topics. Try holding question time during a meeting’s last five minutes, while people are packing up, and give them a deadline for their answers.
Make sure there’s time for them to research their answers, even if they’re only Googling or searching Wikipedia. You want them to learn that it’s worthwhile to take the time to formulate more thorough answers, not just tell you what strikes them in the moment. Over time, you can work on balancing the knowledge they hold from experience with the knowledge they discover through research and analysis.
As the team develops more fluency and acumen, they will probably start asking you more questions of their own — and you can thank them for encouraging you to think new thoughts and expand your perspective too!
Onward and upward,