One of the hardest parts of being a people manager is, well, people. People are complicated; people have issues; people disagree, get confused, overstep, and do any number of things that keep every team, no matter how good the people on it are, from operating at 100% efficiency all of the time.
How can you align expectations and understanding with a whole group of people who have different preferences, backgrounds, and expectations for how things get done?
How can help them create unity, alignment, and appropriate expectations for their own team, and solve disagreements without you stepping in to tell every single person what they should be doing all the time?
As a manager, you succeed at your job when you create a team of mini-CEOs — a collection of people who all own their roles completely and are growing the leadership skills to do outstanding work without you watching over their shoulder all day. And part of growing that team of mini-CEOs is being the kind of coach and teacher who helps people develop the skills they need to operate on their own.
A few weeks ago, we talked about using questions to help your team solve their own work and productivity problems. Using questions, you can also create a unified team working on aligned goals and expectations, who are able to solve their own interpersonal problems without (too much) conflict.
Giving good advice isn’t good enough: how to share knowledge the right way
As a manager, one of the things you often have that is valuable to your team is experience and insight into how things operate higher up in the organization.
But unfortunately, simply telling your team what you know isn’t really good enough to help them really listen or understand what you are saying in a way they can apply to their own life.
Everybody knows that feeling of delivering an incredibly informative presentation to a group of people, all of whose eyes glaze over within 30 seconds of you starting. And that’s because hearing information is boring, it feels like it doesn’t apply to you, and it’s more about the person talking than the person listening.
Giving advice is never as helpful as letting people come to conclusions and answers on their own. We rarely remember the things we are taught, but we do remember the things that we learn.
Which is why in this post, we’re going to talk about how to use questions — not answers — to help grow your team.
Of course, in those conversations, you’ll have the opportunity to share some of your experience and organizational knowledge with your team to bolster what they’re learning on their own.
Here’s how to do it effectively, so their eyes don’t glaze over and they can apply it to the lessons they’re already learning.
Drive towards context. You might think you know the situation (or feel like you’re expected to already understand the situation because you’re the boss), but you probably don’t. Instead of just giving your opinion, start by asking lots of context questions. Who said what? What happened first? What did this person say? The more context you have, the more valuable your contributions to the conversation will be.
Remember, you don’t have to have the answers — you’re helping this person find the answers. They know their own situation better than you do, guide them to giving you as much information as it takes to bring you guys onto the same page. From there, you can add your advice or opinion appropriately by knowing what gaps need filling.
Give examples, not advice. Telling people to be more innovative is a hard directive for them to follow. Instead, if you tell them about advice you got from your old manager and what books you read and what strategies you tried to become more innovative, you’ll be giving them tons of examples they can apply to actually put your knowledge into practice for themselves.
Try to pare it down as much as possible and avoid platitudes. Instead, give examples you’ve either experienced yourself or heard about elsewhere; stories stick a lot more than vague advice, and they’re packed with a lot more valuable, actionable content too.
Using questions to create alignment
Nobody comes to work to do a bad job. Anyone on your team who isn’t working towards the goals you think they should be working towards is doing it because they either:
- don’t know what the right goals are, so they’re working on something they think is a priority that really isn’t
- don’t understand why the goals you think are important matter, so they’re working on something they think does matter
Either way, their bad work is your fault.
It is your job to help people understand what is most important, what you expect from them, and how success is ultimately judged and rewarded. But instead of just telling people what you want them to do, you can use questions to help them understand what success means for themselves.
How do you think success is measured for ____?
People want to succeed; they want to do the things that will make them most successful. And when they don’t do those things, it is usually because they don’t understand how success is measured.
This is a great alignment-creating question because it lets the other person start the conversation. It shows you are curious about how they think about the work, and gives them the chance to share their perspective on the work too.
Asking someone their opinion before you just give advice on what they need to do can be incredibly powerful.
What drives decision-making for ____?
Thinking about how decisions get made is a great way to reframe the idea of priorities and goals. When you zoom out a little bit and start talking about how big company decisions get made, it can make it easier to zoom back in on your particular situation and start talking about why current goals are what they are.
What needs to happen in order for ____ to be a success?
A lot of people, especially engineers, are praised and promoted for the problem-finding skills. Unfortunately, being the person who always points out “that won’t work” doesn’t really make you a very valued or popular teammate with your peers, and it doesn’t help drive solutions.
This question can be a great way to help someone who always sees the problems become a solution-maker. Encourage them to stop poking holes in other solutions by creating their own. This exercise can improve their innovation skills, plus help them hone in on goals, and take the creative risk of putting an idea out there (which is harder than finding all the reasons why someone else’s idea won’t work).
It’s also a great way for you to help align priorities. If they miss or add something big to the list of things that need to happen, it’s an opportunity for you to explain why or why not something should be there.
Using questions to solve interpersonal problems
People don’t always work well together. Especially when you’ve got a team of smart A players who know how they like to get things done and are used to running the show.
Conflict resolution often feels unproductive and unsatisfying because many managers (and people in general) try to resolve conflict by just telling the people in conflict what they need to do. “You need to sort this out because we have a deadline” or “You need to find a way to communicate that works for both of you.”
Okay — yeah, we knew all that already.
True conflict resolution comes when you can help people understand each other — both to see why the conflict arose in the first place and how similar issues can be avoided in the future.
Everyone at work is doing what they think is best — for themselves, for the team, for the product — but not everyone’s vision of what “the best” is will be the same. Using questions, you can help people come to the same page so they can both continue working in the best way possible for both of them, in a way that’s harmonious and productive for the whole team.
What do you think he/she meant by that?
This question can be incredibly revelatory, for two possible reasons:
- The person understands what the other person probably meant, which means they are only a few steps away from being equipped with the right knowledge to better communicate with this person in the future
- The person doesn’t understand what the other person probably meant, which is your opportunity to fill in a key gap that can help this person avoid future conflicts
People are more perceptive than we usually give them credit for; you’ll likely find that the person probably has some pretty accurate ideas about what motivated a conflict, and why the other party said or did the upsetting thing that sparked this conversation.
Once they can acknowledge what the other person intended, then it becomes easier to see the situation objectively and make smart decisions about how to get back on the same page as the other person.
How did that make you feel?
Sound a little touchy-feely? Well, maybe it is — but it’s effective.
Asking people how they feel is an incredible way to open an honest conversation. People don’t get asked very often how they feel, and as a result most people can’t help but answer truthfully when given the opportunity.
Not only does this help you to build trust with the person on your team, but it’s an opportunity to help them vent about their feelings, which can enable them to see the conflict more clearly and move on strategically (rather than being fueled by emotions or fears).
Do you think he/she might be reading this situation differently than you?
This question is powerful because it doesn’t just help solve the problem at hand, but it also helps remind the person you’re working with that they need to consider the perspectives and expectations of the people they works with.
KateM is a fan of saying, “All conflict arises from missed expectations.”
Which makes sense, right? The biggest problems come up when we think things are going one way, and then another person or situation causes them to go another way. We don’t like having our expectations messed with.
So helping your team member see how the situation looks through another person’s eyes can be incredibly powerful for making them more perceptive of this stuff in the future.
They’ll be able to see the current situation clearly, so they can go back and repair any miscommunication this time — but they’ll also now have the ability to be tapped into this other person’s expectations and preferences in the future too, which will help avoid future missed expectations.
What happened right before ____ happened?
Another way of helping your employee see how another person might be reading a situation differently than they do is to talk less about perceptions and more about actions.
When you’re caught up in the emotion of being called out or hurt by a coworker, it is easy to forget the circumstances that led up to that, but if you can re-create the cause and effect, it is often so easy to see where the conflict came from.
If, for example, a coworker starts having conflict with a teammate he used to work closely with and the teammate doesn’t know why, ask them to start working backwards in time from right now. When did the other coworker start creating conflict? What happened right before that?
Maybe it was a meeting where only the one coworker got credit for something they had both worked on — which means the other coworker is feeling jealous or unappreciated, and you can troubleshoot out some solutions for making sure that person knows they are valued as much as the other person.
Or maybe the first coworker finalized something without getting the other coworker’s input, and didn’t think it was a big deal. Well, now they know this other person thinks it is a big deal, and they can begin to troubleshoot *why* the other person thinks it is a big deal (what motivates them, how they think about things, etc) and how they can avoid making the same issue again in the future.
Grow a team of amazing leaders
When you’re a great manager, you understand that coaching the individuals on your team is what makes you truly successful, because you help them become more successful. It’s not just about productivity or work quality; it is about facilitating the kind of relationships and mindsets that can produce high-quality work on a regular schedule because people are working (and working together) to the best of their abilities.
Good bosses help us be better than we were the day we got hired.
The best bosses do it without us even realizing we aren’t just doing it ourselves. How can you be the best boss to the people on your team?