New managers are often selected as a result of their success in operational or technical roles.
While this approach seems sensible, it’s fundamentally flawed. While a manager does need to understand the challenges their reports face on a daily basis, the skill set needed to excel in a technical/operational role is different than the skill set needed to succeed as a manager.
David Brendel, an executive coach, says in a recent Harvard Business Review article that he faces this challenge on a daily basis. Leaders who have worked their way up in a company need to win the trust of their direct reports and corporate leaders, which requires adopting a wide range of leadership behaviors in a short amount of time. Many new leaders feel overwhelmed, unsure of what skills to prioritize and implement from day one.
Brendel always tells his clients to focus on making one immediate and powerful change: ask open ended questions and avoid directive statements. This strategy is easy to implement, and is actually measurable. The manager (or someone who’s observing the manager) simply needs to count how many times he or she asked an open ended question versus a directive statement during a meeting with direct reports. Brendel says the ratio should be very high, somewhere near 10 to 1.
What makes this strategy work?
Unlike closed-ended questions, which warrant only a “yes” or “no” answer, open-ended questions require the respondent to think carefully and speak what’s on their mind. This promotes further dialogue and interpersonal engagement. As long as the question is asked in a neutral manner (with no hints towards what the “correct” answer should be), the manager can gather information about what challenges their direct reports are facing. Open-ended questions also send the message that the manager values and respects what their direct reports have to say, which quickly builds trust. If a manager is willing to put in the time to build relationships with their direct reports, trust will deepen and enhance the productivity and quality of life in the workplace.
“Here’s an example of an open-ended question a manager might ask his or her direct report: ‘When will you be ready to master that new technical skill that the CEO wants us to develop?’ The reply will yield information about the employee’s level of motivation and adaptability, as well as what’s realistic in the current work environment. A directive statement like, ‘I need you to master that skill by the end of the month’ is more likely to cause the direct report to experience fear, frustration, resentment, passive aggression, and failure to achieve the unilaterally imposed benchmark.” –David Brendel
Not every strategy works for everyone, and it is possible that an employee may not respond well to open-ended questions. Brendel says this could be a red flag, so start out by giving clear instructions, and if communication doesn’t improve, institute a performance plan. If a performance plan doesn’t help, it may be necessary to terminate the employee if they continue to under-perform.
When open-ended questions are thoughtful and sincere, failure is rare. New managers face many challenges, and it can be difficult to decide what to tackle first. Asking good questions, listening carefully to the replies, and facilitating meaningful dialogue will build trust and boost engagement, which is a great place to start.