Asking questions is the most powerful, yet underutilized, tool you carry as a leader. Questions force your team to think. Questions reveal assumptions and thought processes by the answers they elicit. Questions start a dialogue. Questions involve the other party in creating solutions, which builds commitment to those solutions. It all starts with questions leaders ask.

Here are four questions excellent leaders ask their underperforming employees … and all other employees for that matter.

1. Do you understand why it is important to get this task right?

The "why" question gets to the heart of motivation. Paint the big picture by explaining the circle of consequences so the employee sees the connection between his performance on this task, impact on his team, the organizations, its customers, and shareholders and right back to the personal impact on him (e.g., job security, being on a winning team, exposure to executive leadership, stepping stone for promotion, opportunity to expand skills and financial rewards).

2. Are you crystal clear about what needs to be done and by when?

This assesses how aligned each party's expectations are. Explanation gaps lead to execution gaps. A large majority of performance issues can be prevented with clear expectations up front. If you do not have time to get clear up front, you will be forced to spend time re-clarifying expectations on the back end … and it will not be very fun. Keep it simple and agree to the three W's up front: What, Who, and When. What, specifically, needs to be done with a measurable outcome (email me a proofread final draft report with all agreed-to components), who is accountable for doing it, and by when (Friday, Oct. 31 by 5 pm ET).

3. Do you feel fully equipped to perform the task successfully?

This identifies any gaps in skills, knowledge, or tools, which then helps you develop a training, coaching, or tool-improvement plan to close the gap. Your job as a leader is to equip your team for success. Your investment in your team members is the input and their good performance is the output. Hiring great people is necessary but not sufficient. Excellent leaders fully engage the hearts and minds of their teams to drive sustained, discretionary effort.

4. What barriers are preventing you from performing the task successfully?

This question addresses the working environment--and you the leader are a central part of that environment. Leaders inadvertently create barriers to performance by not matching authority and responsibility levels. Give your team members the authority they need to achieve the results for which you will hold them accountable so they feel they have control over their work. Also remember that slower decision-making is another common barrier leaders inadvertently build. Be decisive. Use the best available information and your intuition to provide definite and timely decisions for employees. Analysis paralysis is the enemy of achievement. You want your team to say, "I'm not waiting on anyone except me, so I need to keep moving. I have commitments to keep!"

Although these questions are directed to the employee, the answers often reveal something the leader failed to do or communicate effectively. Remember, leadership is an inside job. Excellent leaders look at themselves first to identify problems.

For more tools to boost team performance, read Stick With It: Mastering the Art of Adherence.

Published on: Oct 1, 2014
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