Ask Instead of Tell

Feb 15, 2024

As a leader, almost everything you tell you can yield better results by asking. It’s the ultimate superpower in The Auxin Leader System. Simple example: A team member’s performance is below expectations. What’s your first instinct? The usual pattern is to analyze the situation, determine what needs to be done and tell the person what they need to do differently – make more calls, be more efficient, use a different CRM system, prioritize better. You might sprinkle a question or two in the discussion, but the ultimate goal is to tell the person what they need to do. The person usually responds by nodding their head, saying something like, “I think that will help,” and then showing a spurt of energy. The person’s activity may increase for a while (and maybe their results), but the long term is that they plateau at how you have defined expectations.

Asking gets a different result. It quickly moves through the fluff and excuses to gets to the root cause. Take the same example above: A team member’s performance is below expectations. Begin by asking this question, “Help me understand why?” When you ask a question your team member must talk. The initial response could be an excuse or a valid issue. Respond to the response with a question – Usually a version of “why” or “how.” This forces the person to look deeper. “If you knew that the day would be busy, what did you do differently to create more time to focus on your goals? Why?” There is an old continuous improvement tool called the “5 whys” that can be incredibly useful. It simply says that when you ask “why” 5 times you will usually get to the root cause.

In a fast-moving world, here’s why asking instead of telling creates greater impact. You want your people driving growth. You want them thinking, anticipating, and reacting in ways that create higher performance and growth. The most effective way to do that is ask question after question after question. Whatever the result, ask why. If the results were great, ask why. This forces the person to think through their actions, reinforcing right thinking and action in their mind and body. If performance was down, ask why without judgement. This forces the person to think through what they were doing and begin to see better options moving forward. If you tell them the answer you are the problem solver, not them. Telling may create short term action, but it also creates long term plateauing at how you define success. Telling creates a team that is less emotionally invested in helping you succeed. With the best of intentions, you are creating a reactive team that will always turn to you before taking action. Spend 80% of your time asking questions and listening and you will create a more engaged, focused, and productive team that helps you drive growth.

Another secret to successful asking is planning. Asking questions without anticipating where the conversation might go can cause you to get caught off guard – not knowing what to do with the person’s answer. This puts you and your team member in an awkward situation, which often leads to telling. A little planning can keep the conversation focused on your team member and helping them grow in their role.

Be clear about the goal of your conversation. While each conversation may have a slightly different goal, as a leader your overall goal is to help the person develop the critical thinking skills to be proactive in their role and help create organizational success. You are not fixing a problem. You are building a proactive problem solver. 

Craft the question to support the goal of the conversation using this simple tool: Identify & Ask. You see something that you want to explore. Define what you see and frame the question to gain understanding. “For the past month, the weekly reports have been delayed a day. Help me understand what’s happening.”

Anticipate the 2-3 probable responses to your question. The reasons for the delay will usually be work overload, them not getting the data on time, higher priorities, personal issues, or something else. If you spend 5 minutes thinking you can probably identify the 5 most likely responses.

Plan how you will respond to each of their potential responses with another question. For example: “Do you know why the timeline is important?” (Don’t tell them why, ask them.) If they say, “yes,” ask them to explain it to you. Leaders often do not communicate why timelines are important and what they do with the report. Without this information the person compiling the report has no clue about the importance of the timeline.

Next, take ownership of anything you should do differently in the future, and plan an action question to help the team member build a plan for future success. “I’m sorry that I did not explain why the timeline is so important. Totally my fault. Does it make more sense now? What can you do differently in the future to ensure that we get the report on time?”

Listen to the person’s plan and ask relevant probing questions. If the person says something like, “I just need to focus more on this,” it can be useful to ask another question like, “I appreciate your desire to focus more. I also know that you have a lot to do every day. What I want you to think about is what your plan will be to ensure that this report gets to us on time even during busy weeks. Let’s get together on Wednesday and talk about your plan.”

One final note. Your tone when you ask questions is critical. If questions are asked with a judgmental tone, team members will become defensive or compliant. You don’t want either of these. The tone needs to be understanding and support.

Curious about The Auxin Leader?

Preview the first two weeks of the course for free.

Course Preview

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.