Are You Asking Team Members the Right Questions?

BY C. Lee Smith
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Are you asking team members the right questions? If you're running an old-​school organization, probably not. Technology has rapidly changed the products and services we deliver, but organizational practices haven’t kept up. For example, if you’re still giving employees annual performance appraisals, your system needs a refresh. And if you’re not paying attention to the stress your employees have felt in the last year, you may soon be seeing an exodus of talent. You can change that outcome and improve your business by using the types of questions recommended by John Berghoff, CEO and co-​founder of Exchange and recent Manage Smarter podcast guest.

How Old-​School Management Stifles Progress

In old-​school organizations, few individuals in a business could make independent decisions. New rules and ideas came from the head office, and back in the day, the person in that office was a white male. Too often, that person was removed from the everyday challenges that team members encountered.

During business disruptions, such as what happened during the pandemic, the old-​school system breaks down. Today’s employees will work hard, but they also want to be heard. When managers “validate employee stress,” team members feel appreciated and valued says Carol Parker Walsh in a Newsweek column. These days, less experienced and younger workers want to make a difference. In knowledge-​based businesses, these employees are highly educated and often, they’re critical thinkers. To ignore their input would be shortsighted.

Managing Through Questions

Workers also expect “leaders to lead alongside their teams,” says Gregg Brown of Change Ready Leadership in a Newsweek article on burnout. Berghoff discussed how this new organizational model works during a recent sales meeting he monitored. Instead of having the usual sales stars explain how they were making their numbers, the company broke the group into teams. From there, each team member shared a story about what they learned from adapting to change since the start of the pandemic. Says Berghoff, “We call that crowdsourcing.”

Leaders can also break the rigid old-​school organizational structure by asking team members the right questions.

Purpose Questions

Because younger workers expect information to be democratized and to be part of a transparent conversation, you must find a way for this trend to succeed in your company. One way to keep team members focused on important tasks and the corporate mission is to use purpose questions. It’s easy to get lost in the day-​to-​day “fire drills.” Starting a one-​on-​one meeting or a team meeting by stating the organization’s purpose helps to remove negative emotions. And when you ask people how they see themselves and their role fitting into the purpose, you're orienting their thoughts in a positive direction.

Guided Questions

Many sales managers, in addition to business owners and leaders, have experienced huge levels of stress and doubt in the past year. It’s easy to fall into a mindset of ‘shared victimhood’ as you remember opportunities that have been lost. That mindset won’t help your business succeed. Pivoting quickly is the answer, as many organizations have learned. One of the best ways to escape the trap of reactivity, suggests Berghoff, is to become proactive by having the right conversations. Those conversation must start by asking yourself and your team members the right guided questions.

In a crisis situation, such as when you are losing customers, the focus can’t be on fault. It’s not productive to spend too much time lamenting the situation. It’s also not enough to ask how you can stop the loss of customers. To change the organizational practices, to make them truly exceptional, the bigger question should be something like, "How can you deliver the most excellent customer service?" By setting a high goal, you have a chance of making effective change.

When focusing on a guided positive question, participants will be swept up in the enthusiasm of trying something new instead of complaining about what doesn’t work. “Always starts with a conversation that's pulling us aspirationally towards the future,” urges Berhoff.

Paired Interviews and Questions

Not all team members will be able to adapt to a newly flexible organization. In fact, after any organizational change, employees may try to stay siloed and shift the blame to someone else. This type of conflict, or resistance, requires a specific kind of managerial attention. It’s always a good idea to have both people meet to discuss their issues.  Berghoff goes a step further. He recommends using a 10-​minute meeting during which these team members ask each other questions designed to help them get to the “whole of the workplace.” 

If your managers are finding it challenging to lead their teams as we emerge from the pandemic, encourage them to use the right questions. And if they need help identifying these questions, sign them up for sales manager training.