Being a good boss and a good leader often comes down to one thing: asking good questions.

In order to help your employees grow and thrive, you'll need to coach them. So instead of just assigning them tasks and critiquing their work, you need to try asking relevant and meaningful questions to help guide them along.

"With those questions you can move away from command-and-control leadership to a dynamic in which your direct report grows through self-reflection," Amy Jen Su, the co-founder and managing partner of executive training firm Isis Associates, writes in a Harvard Business Review article.

But not just any questions will get the job done. You'll need to ask the right things at the right times to truly help your employees. Here are seven best practices Su suggests you keep in mind:

  1. Plan ahead. Decide beforehand what you are going to ask and prepare yourself mentally before engaging the employee. You obviously can't plan every single question you'll ask, but many can be thought out beforehand. And you can also make sure to breath and relax so that you're in the proper mindset.
  2. Determine where your employee's head is at. Help him or her identify some or all of the following: what can you handle now, what do you want to tackle in the future, what skill level are you working with, how do you process information, what motivates you, what do you value, what may be holding you back.
  3. Make sure your questions are "phrased as open-ended queries." Steer away from questions that start with "why"--those can feel judgmental.
  4. Be curious about the answers. Make sure your employee doesn't think you're only asking these questions because its your job. Convey that you actually care about how they're doing.
  5. Withhold inserting your own point of view and judgment. This is really about listening to your employee, even if you think you have the best answer. At the end of the conversation you can ask your employee if he or she is interested in hearing your thoughts, and only then can you gently share your perspective.
  6. Respond to your employee's answers with further questions.
  7. Ask questions that suggest new possibilities instead of simply inducing a venting session about what's going wrong currently. Recognize your employee's story, but then help him or her move beyond it.

It can be difficult to ask the right questions, but this is something that bosses need to work on in order to bring out the best in their employees. It takes a lot of time and trust to build this kind of relationship, but it can only benefit you, your employee, and your company.

"Asking the right coaching questions means the difference between a one-way interrogation and a dynamic learning session," Su writes. "Good coaching questions give someone who's busy and competent the space in which to step back and examine herself. The right question can stop her in her tracks as she finally sees her own actions from a different perspective or envisions a new solution to an old problem."

Published on: Dec 12, 2014