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Why don't managers ask the right questions?

30th Oct 2012
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  I guess that one of the perks of being a trainer is that you get to see common themes and concerns that rear up in different organisations. It’s interesting to see the similarities across the board even when companies think their issues are unique to them. There is one particular skills gap I’ve noticed, which I’d be interested in other people’s views on – in case it is just me!

 I know that I have a level of bias from my own experience and background; for many years I worked in career guidance, which means, I’m trained to ask questions, explore circumstances  and help clients make informed decisions.

 Consider this. I have an exercise I use regularly. It’s a role play, using the scenario of a senior manager who has asked a junior admin clerk for some figures. The junior is not a direct report. The written instructions for the senior manager are to find out why the junior has not prepared the figures as requested. Just that. No problem solving, disciplining, accusing or castigating...just find out why the work has not been done. I also stress this in the verbal instructions. I tell them to explore the situation and get to the bottom of what is going on. The junior has a list of issues and reasons he hasn’t been able to do the job and is instructed to answer any questions asked. Do-able, surely?

 The truth is, the vast majority of delegates have struggled to find out what is going on.  A few cursory opening gambits, very little challenging or probing, and hey presto, they’re into problem solving mode – when this wasn’t even in the brief. 

 I often say that, in my opinion, questioning skills are a major skills gap among managers, but the truth isn’t that simple. Many managers get their roles because they are good at getting things done, which includes making quick decisions – and the pace of work and pressure for results only increases  the need to achieve more with less resources. Where does that leave their motivation to develop questioning skills? Hardly top of their priority list. They have little desire  (I have been told, more than once) to open cans of worms, discovering problems they don’t want to address.

 But how good are all these decisions made on insufficient data?  And how committed are staff if they don’t feel they are heard, or have the opportunity to explain what is going on? Of course, I am not advocating that busy managers start exploring in depth every little query. But we would do well to remind ourselves – and our delegates – of the consequences of acting on presenting information, without getting to the heart of the matter, which may cost us much more time and trouble than it saves in the long run.


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