Let’s great straight into this.
The more I learn, the more I realise I have so much to learn. I don’t have all the answers and you don’t have all the answers but how wonderful is life, particularly at work, that we have the opportunity to grow and help develop others. Surely, we don’t assume we have all the answers, and surely, we don’t believe we haven’t got time to ask questions. Who are we not to ask questions? Who are we to limit our employee’s growth and learning?
Many of us enjoy being leaders because we feel deeply satisfied when we help develop our staff. It is satisfying to see people in our care grow and succeed. It is motivating when we inspire those around us to contribute to organisational goals and feel valued at their place of work.
In busy service environments, when frontline leaders are not always present or accessible to troubleshoot or assist, leading with questions becomes a crucial skill in order to equip and empower staff to create solutions when placed in new environments or when stretched outside of their comfort zone.
By asking questions, you are encouraging your staff to think for themselves and you are teaching them the cause-and-effect relationship of their decisions.
We forget that developing staff is a long-term game, not a short-term solution. We bark out orders, we fixate on what we have to do to get the results. However, we have to get to know our staff, to invest time in our employees, in order for them to deliver exceptional customer experiences.
When leaders direct staff they:

  • teach them to become dependent on us
  • limit their brain flexibility
  • narrow their perspective
  • encourage old patterns of thinking and behaviour.

When leaders develop staff they:

  • encourage creative thinking.
  • access more and better information
  • allow for greater brain flexibility and form new patterns in their brains
  • teach them to think for themselves

I have been mentoring a HR professional for several months now, and we have been working on the art of conversation and coaching. She is living in a typical busy, reactive HR world where everyone else’s importance is imposed upon her. She is highly frustrated with how little self-imposed time she has left at the end of the working week, to do the important, non-urgent work.
Early in our conversations, she realised that the winning formula for her was to be better at developing her peers, colleagues and sub ordinates, so that she could equip and empower them to be better decision makers and think for themselves, rather than relying so heavily on her for everything.
Over the past few months, she has been focussing on questions and preparing for conversations. The results of which are effective and sustaining, even if it is hard work.
As leaders who truly love developing staff, it is highly satisfying when we witness that ‘light bulb moment’, when their jaw drops and their eyes widen—it’s as if you actually hear a ‘ding’ go off in their head as they experience a moment of clarity.
This is what you are aiming for but it only comes when you ask instead of tell your employees what to do. If your relationship with employees is one where you direct them to complete a task, their performance will plateau and their ability to perform in your absence will diminish. The reality of service is that front-line leaders are not always present, you are not always available to give the answers; therefore, you need staff to think on their own two feet and truly shine when you leave the room.
When you ask questions, you actually lift your employees’ performance because they feel like part of the solution. They want to help you; they want to work with you. They are more likely to remember what to do and believe the importance of why they must do it.
If you want to enact real change in your employees, they must first see the need for change.
If you witness an employee behaving in a less than satisfactory way towards a customer, you have a split second to decide:

  1. Am I going to tell this employee what I observed and what I expect to see in the future when they interact with customers? Or
  2. Am I going to ask this employee how they think they showed up in that interaction and what the impact of that was on the customer?

Those are two different approaches; however, if you want to enact real change in the long term, option two will be far more effective in lifting the performance of your employee’s service interactions. Option one is a work-around, a shortcut; it’s simply telling, instructing and directing.
Our brains are powerful. They give us the capacity (within that split second of making a decision) to justify our decision, judge our decision and even predict the response of the employee based on our decision. The real work begins when leading with questions and to grow this we need to allow for conscious thoughts, time and commitment to develop.
1. Conscious thought
Taking a few seconds to pause and consciously lead is intimately connected to asking questions. For us to stop and think about what is the best, we are required to think consciously not automatically.
Peter Bregman author of Four Seconds reminds us that four seconds is the time it takes to take a single breath. The goal is to use the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath, to check your thoughts and consciously act from that place.
When you stop and take a breath, you give yourself the chance to be more mindful in that moment, and to dial into what will be your most effective next move.
It is our default thinking that kills curiosity in business. Our need for more efficiency and better results feeds unhelpful habits and old patterns in our leadership styles, which means we forget to stop for a moment; we forget to be curious about what we notice and this affects how effectively we develop that individual.
When one of the companies I work with introduced side-by-side coaching with its contact centre employees, it highlighted the importance of dealing with matters as they occurred and addressing mediocre performance at the time it was witnessed—not a month later in a scheduled team meeting. Plus, it resulted in immediate improvements for the customer’s experience. This new company process of developing its people requires daily conscious thought from front-line leaders to be able to provide real time meaningful feedback to their teams.
2. Time
Just like the tortoise and the hare fable: slow and steady wins the race.
If you believe you don’t have time to address a situation through questions, and that it is more time effective to tell, you have been struck with the mindset that faster is better. In fact, faster is not always better. Viewing time as an obstacle is an example of a fixed mindset that leads to your team also becoming stuck. There’s no doubt that questions take time, mainly because we want our employees to process information and think about the topic raised. Not everyone processes information at the same pace; you must be patient, and hold the space for your team to process and learn. Time is definitely a hurdle for busy front-line leaders. What if we looked at time differently? Not necessarily in that one moment, but by addressing issues the first time we see an opportunity.
If I tell my five-year-old niece to put her shoes on when she goes walking in the garden, it will be a momentary comment, and she will comply. However, I guarantee that I will need to repeat myself when I see her again. But if I were to ask her what she needs to be mindful of when walking through the garden barefoot, we can have a conversation where she may offer up ideas like being stung by a bee, pricked by bindies or injured by nails left out from the workman. This conversation allows her to think for herself; it makes her realise the relationship between her safety and putting her shoes on. I guarantee that next time she will not only wear her shoes in the garden but she will proudly tell me why she is wearing them.
The question is how much time do you have now to help develop your employee in the moment, versus how happy are you to repeat yourself over time?
3. Commit to develop
For years, I thought that if my team liked me they would do as I say. Yeah right!
Over time, I have learned that when we step into the role of serving our teams and helping them to be better than yesterday, they actually start helping us whether they like us or not. Committingtodevelop your team members results in them committing to developing the company, they will assist in any way they can.
Your intention is to help your team grow, but you need to prepare for this. When we truly commit to something, we give it great thought; we prepare for the task. Preparing (committing) to develop our teams requires preparing for the conversations and, therefore, knowing roughly what questions to ask.
Saying we will do something and actually doing it are two different things. We can all say we are committed to developing our staff; we can all say we are good leaders who like to help people learn and grow, but the reality is that a leader must do more work in the prep stages. This is why asking questions is hard, particularly when it is not your natural starting point as a leader.
Questions require thought, preparation, and time. What will matter most, if you truly want to commit to developing your staff, are your actions, how you plan your days, what you prioritise in your walkarounds and staff visits, and making time for conversations.
You can always prepare for a conversation, even if it’s a short one. A simple starting place in preparing for a conversation is what question will I ask?
Questions on the Fly
Due to the nature of the service sector, it’s not always possible to prepare for these conversations thoroughly. So we also need to be able to ask questions on the fly. If I am under prepared when entering a conversation with someone, or have been taken by surprise and want to develop the employee in the moment, I have three simple prompts to help me:

  1. Golden rule: no closed questions
    Erase from your brain questions that start with Do, Are, Can, Could, Will or Is—they will get you nowhere. All questions that start with these words lead to a dead end.
  2. Ask WHY five times
    The best default for developing people is keep asking Why. You will go deeper into the conversations, and it will buy you time to think more consciously about a specific question to help you get well on your way to co-creating a light bulb moment.
  3. Keep Quiet
    After the initial approach to address a performance observation, be silent. This tool is grossly underutilised in conversations between leaders and employees. Often the silence is enough to allow the employee to dig deeper, talk more about what they believe is going on and decide on the best solution. Try it.

Jaquie Scammell
‘Be in Service’