Plenty of books are filled with lists of questions, but asking questions without a clear objective is like playing the question lotto. Very occasionally you might get lucky and win, but most of the time you will come up empty-handed. That's a loss for you and for your team member. There is rarely a right answer to a wrong question.
There are four main reasons to ask questions: to understand, assess, innovate and motivate. It is important to understand your objectives before you start asking. Within each objective, your question might focus on the person or the project/process. For example, if you want to understand, most leaders jump directly to questions that help them understand their team's projects and processes by asking:
- What's the goal?
- What's the plan?
- What are your options?
However, excellent leaders start with questions to help understand their people, such as:
- In which areas would you like to grow?
- What do you love to do?
- What do you need to be at your very best?
Showing genuine interest in your employees as people is the foundation of a fully engaged team. Theodore Roosevelt summed it up nicely when he said, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." If you need to motivate your people to action, you might ask:
- What needs to happen for this to succeed?
- What do you think the next steps should be?
- What's in it for you and the team if this is wildly successful?
Certain coaching questions work in almost any situation. These are some of our favorites that we have heard excellent leaders ask:
- What do you think?
- Why do you think this is happening?
- What can we start, stop and keep to improve?
- And what else? (Repeated as a prompt to obtain more details.)
- Is this your very best work? (my mentor asks me this!)
Here is a table with 49 sample questions organized by each of the four objectives to help you engage your team with purposeful questions.