As a busy leader in your business – you rely on your team to execute projects you’ve created. You need them to understand the scope and deliver what you’re expecting. So why is it that sometimes there seems to be a loss in translation? Communication with your team is crucial to success on projects, so it’s important to identify where things can be improved (baseline) or optimized (ideal!). There’s a ton of ways to work on your communication, but today we’ll focus on one specific area – closed questions vs open-ended questions.
What is an open-ended or closed question?
A “closed question” is one that calls for a yes or no answer. “Got it?” or “understand?” are examples here. This type of question limits conversation and exploration. It also implies that there are only two answers, rather than shades of grey (eg. “do you like this design” – maybe the receiver likes parts of it but has ideas to improve others). A closed question limits avenues for a productive exchange of ideas and, if used too frequently, can leave team members feeling disempowered and disengaged.
An “open question,” on the other hand, cannot be answered with a simple “yes or no.” It both leaves space for and requires that the recipient insert their own critical thinking, opinions, and experiences into the answer. “What do you like about the design,” for example, gives the recipient space to openly describe their perspective and offer insights that you may otherwise not have the chance to hear. Open questions promote dialogue and therefore increase clarity, collaboration, creativity, joint problem-solving. Over time, focusing on these types of questions as a leader will result in more engaged, connected, proactive, and empowered team members – exactly what most teams need to succeed!
So when assigning projects or tasks, pay attention to the types of questions you ask. Do you find yourself asking team members short, closed questions like, “understand?” or “Got it?”. That may be resulting in a communication barrier that is preventing your team from performing at its best.
What’s wrong with “do you understand?”
It’s innocent on the surface – you may not readily see anything wrong with that question. You may think you’re being direct and to the point. Efficient! But the problem with “do you understand?” or “got it?” is that it is a closed question. It’s designed for either a ‘yes/no’ answer. This works great when you are collecting specific data points with little wiggle room (like, “Are you working tomorrow?) – but clarity on a project or task is not a good example of that. We want more information and responses that will help us make sure projects are understood, clear, and effective.
So by asking “do you understand?” – you’re only going to get 2 answers. Even worse, humans by nature will want to defensively say ‘yes’ (even when they might have questions) so you’ll rarely hear anything else. Now you’ve sent them on their way – possibly without clarity, commitment, or feeling confident in the task, and almost certainly without opening up avenues for productive dialogue, innovation, exchange of ideas, and a chance to grow both the efficacy of the project and the relationship with the teammate.
Instead, asking one of the open-ended questions below will instinctively encourage more dialogue. This may take a little longer (conversation requires more space than a single word answer) but it allows for so much more relationship building, creativity, and clarity for everyone. With different personalities, experiences, and approaches – you’re much more likely to get ideas, collaboration, or improvements with open-ended questions.
So here are three different open-ended questions to ask an employee during a project that will get you much farther than “do you understand?”
3 Better Questions
1. “What questions do you have?”
The easiest change to make; after explaining your project or task that the employee needs to make – simply ask what questions they have. While they may not have any at all, this allows for a natural opportunity to engage in further details or clarity of the assignment. And even if they don’t, it builds more rapport between you – which will strengthen the relationship in the future.
2. “What problems am I not seeing?”
This is a great open-ended question to ask an employee. It helps build trust and allows you to take advantage of their expertise. It means you are more likely to identify and proactively solve problems, AND it has the added benefit of showing the receiving team member that they’re valued – “the leader is asking for my input and critical thinking – I must have the potential to offer something important!” (Ideally, you have surrounded yourself with experts in their areas and people whose judgment you trust – they should have insight into projects that will be valuable. Don’t ask this question if you are not authentically open and curious to hear what the involved team members have to offer!) This open-ended question gives you and your team the opportunity to brainstorm, collaborate, and improve tasks for better results.
3. “What support can I provide you?”
Another easy open-ended question to ask your employees after giving them a project. This builds trust, helps engage them in responsibility, and provides a natural conversation that will identify potential challenges or roadblocks. It also shows them that you care about them and are in it with them – ready to jump in to help where it will matter to them. This has benefits for the relationship and overall levels of engagement as well as the project at hand.
You’re determined to grow your business, and you recognize that your team is a key part of that. In order to lead them effectively with optimal results – paying attention to how you communicate, ask questions, and provide the right level of direction will make all the difference. To get more engagement and clarity on the next project you assign – ask more open-ended questions like these. They allow for more conversation, trust-building, and clarity. Better communication is key to a peak performing team.