If you describe a team member or colleague as a “problem-solver,” the connotation is definitely positive. But saying someone is a great “question asker” might not be so well received. We think of leaders as take-charge, action-oriented people who show up with answers, not a bunch of questions. But it’s possible that is a little bit backward.
Encouraging team members to focus on solutions, rather than problems, stems from a positive desire to empower people to think through issues on their own. But it can also stifle meaningful discussion and fail to raise issues not addressed by a proposed solution. Especially in a group meeting where employees want to show themselves as can-do team players and idea people, asking questions can even be interpreted as weakness, being unprepared or not being on the same page as the group.
“The ‘bring me a solution’ approach can cause employees to shut down in fear, breed a culture of intimidation, and prevent some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises,” advises Global CEO Coach, Sabina Nawaz, writing in Harvard Business Review
Of course, you don’t want to head into your boss’s office with nothing but problems and expect her to have all the answers. You will want to grapple with them yourself first, be able to lay out the key challenges and have thought through some possible approaches. For fairly straight-forward issues, you may even have a proposed solution in hand. You likely encourage direct reports to use a similar strategy and, in many instances, can then simply provide the approval needed for team members to move ahead with their suggestion.
But when things get more complicated or the stakes are higher, it pays to invite real questions that can tease out issues you had not yet considered. Even if you have a good solution in hand, probing questions can lead to an even better one.
Of course, asking good questions doesn’t provide license for hand wringing or indulgent complaining. But being a real “problem solver” often starts with learning to ask the right questions, and creating an environment where it’s safe for others to do so as well. Consider these ideas for soliciting and developing questions that can move the discussion forward and lead to stronger solutions.
- Start with the right invitation. If you present a new initiative as already set in stone and all you need are ideas for implementation, that’s what you’ll get. If instead, you encourage relevant questions and concerns about the initiative itself, team members are more likely to start from a more foundational place of whether this approach is even the right one, or let you know if you’re missing an important piece.
- Find a better way of phrasing it. A great way to get genuine feedback is to blatantly ask for it. Instead of relying on the often perfunctory and binary “Any questions?” when introducing a new idea or challenge, try something that cannot be answered with yes or no. You might say instead, “What are your initial thoughts?” or “Where do you see plusses and minuses here?” or “What haven’t we thought of yet?” Those phrases make it perfectly clear that you don’t have all the answers, welcome legitimate questions and don’t see the proposed solution as already wrapped up. You can open the door even wider by saying, “I don’t know what I don’t know, so I want to hear your thoughts.”
- Create enough safety for people to share less enthusiastic responses. When the boss shares an idea, there’s a natural tendency to line up behind her. You have to work hard to demonstrate over time that you don’t punish those who bring up new insights, have conflicting opinions or raise inconvenient complications. In addition, when you model that you actually want to be among the first to hear bad news or emerging problems, you will increase your chances of weighing in before it’s too late.
- Develop consistent approaches for framing problems. Encouraging people to ask probing questions and test new ideas is not the same as tolerating relentless complaining. The point is not just to shoot holes in other people’s suggestions, but to garner greater diversity of thought and work together to get to even better ideas. Nawaz suggests requiring team members to create “problem statements” that provide objective facts and examine underlying factors to help everyone dig deeper to identify root causes and long-term solutions.
- Put the right people on it. One of the most powerful outcomes of raising questions is the opening it provides to think about who on the team, or even in the larger organization, has the expertise to increase understanding around the issue and help you tackle it. Bringing in additional expertise can also provide a learning opportunity for everyone involved.
Encouraging relevant questions as an integral part of the problem-solving experience, rather than a distraction, sign of weakness or evidence that the questioner is somehow not a team player, can help you arrive at even better solutions more quickly.