Ask the Right Questions To Help Win Credibility (Human Factor by Grey Williams)

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Most managers will be called on several times over the course of a career to take on a new department, company, group or division. Handling the “people side” of such a transition can be a challenge. Fear, resentment and all varieties of expectations are likely lurking within the new staff. How can a manager overcome these and establish a winning relationship with a new team?

My answer is by asking a series of targeted, open-ended questions. Through these questions a manager can enter this new situation with an existing team and get to know the staff, establish credibility and rapport and discover key problem areas.

It is important that these questions are asked in a way that does not convey any expectations of a “right answer.” The questions must be truly open-ended and the manager must ask them and listen carefully, without passing judgment or replying in any way other than to further open up the conversation.

Let’s look at each question and what it accomplishes in turn:

What do our customers want? This question lets the new team know that this is the manager’s primary concern. By establishing focus on the customers rather than on internal politics and procedures, the manager establishes an approach that allows the manager to be just one more team member helping make sure that the customer’s needs are met. It also helps stimulate the team to think about how to better serve customers.

What are we good at? This question continues the conversation on a positive note. It shows that the manager is not on a “witch-hunt” and can often surprise staff who are bracing for questions about problems. The manager can just smile and say, “we’ll get to that.”

What do you want? Here the focus is not on the manger’s, desire for the team, but the team members’ own desires. It shows that the manager is focused on them and that they are important. The responses can be varied and interesting, but often times are as simple as, “to do a good job and be paid fairly.”

What are you good at? By asking this question a manager can get to know the employee’s self-assessment, whether it is accurate or not. This question also allows the manager to focus on strengthening strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses.

After asking this question the manager can also have a good place to begin with in measuring the employee and team’s performance. “Do they have a good self-understanding or do they not?” and “how can I get perception and reality to match?” are good follow-up questions for the manager.

If you could change one thing, what would it be? When asked this question many will ask “about me, or about this place or … ?” The manager must resist specifying. The staff person will come up with the most useful answer when the question is left as broad as possible. It is important to ask this question last, because all of the questions preceding it help put this last question into the proper context.

The answer they give after having answered all of the other questions may be very different from the answer that would have been given if the question had been asked earlier.

Do you have any questions for me? After having answered this series of questions the manager’s staff will have opened up. Now its time for them to do the asking, so be prepared for some tough questions.

By answering the staff’s questions honestly and openly the manager will cement his or her credibility. But if all the manager gets is “I don’t know yet,” that is fine too. By asking this last question the manger has still opened up the flow of dialogue.

These questions can also be used by executives questioning their managers. Simply ask, “what is your department good at?” “what do your employees want?” etc. in addition to the above questions.

In the same way that the above questions help win rapport and stimulate customer centered thinking in first line employees, these questions can stimulate the same responses in managers, helping them think about where they are and where they are headed with their teams.

Good questions are the manager’s best tool for any new situation involving a new staff — winning confidence and building trust. These questions will pay dividends well into the future.

These questions aren’t just good tools for a manager entering a new situation. They can be used at strategic times throughout the year to take stock and reengage with staff.

(Grey Williams is a principal at Dextera Corp. in Little Rock, a business services firm helping small businesses achieve their growth and return goals. He can be reached at [email protected].)