- Wise Words -
Yes, ask your manager questions. Just don't put them on the spot - too much!
by stefan zahariev
For both Early Stage Professionals (“ESPs”) or those at mid-career level it can be challenging to question your manager’s ideas and views. That said it is often worth doing this as you will have a different view and as you are likely closer to the project your view may even be the right one!
As I have progressed through my career (I am about 6 years into it) I have already had a variety of managers and all have had different personalities. This is no surprise; we are all different. We are all human beings from different backgrounds with a variety of professional skills and life experiences. Because of these differences I have found that there is a thin line when questioning a superior as you can offend them if not done right!
However, if you do it right, it will help you succeed as you will be able to build a better relationship with your manager as he will appreciate your eagerness to do the right thing. You will also end up expanding your knowledge too.
I use two different approaches when working with my managers: open ended and funnel questions. Don’t worry there won’t be a ton more jargon here, I promise!
I hope you find my experience useful…
In personal and business life, while we all want meaningful answers, it is not always black and white and this is why open-ended questions are useful. They help us understand the grey.
First off, here’s what an open-ended question is, it is one that is not answered by a yes or no. You may ask “can you explain why our company is focused on the new product strategy?”. The answers are likely to contain many words where the person talking will be pulling on their knowledge, expertise and experience.
By asking these questions you could help your superior think twice about the project, to mentally review his decision or even discover new ideas and possible solutions. By receiving something different from the usual yes or no we could really contribute to the outcome of a current work situation.
Why I like Open Ended Questions
Looking at my professional experience, I had the privilege to work with the two types of people. The ones that were extremely number and results driven and the second type are those trying to understand the bigger picture by taking the time to answer the open-ended questions. Like many of us, I am looking for the meaningfulness in my day to day work and I truly enjoy working with people who have demonstrated positive attitude against open-ended questions.
Using open-ended questions with my manager has also helped me improve my communication skills, which led to better sales experience and significant improvement when trying to understand my customer needs. Taking the time to think and prepare an answer has often led to more creative situations that later developed better outcome for my manager and me.
Asking the wrong question will often lead to the wrong answer. Mastering asking and getting “the right answer” back is a skill that I am always trying to improve.
Sometimes you might check with your superior if he has taken the right decision by funneling the questions you are going to ask. The best way to explain funnel questions is that it is like extracting information by drawing with a series of questions. Each question gets more and more detailed as you go further down the funnel. The tactic of funnel questions contains multiple closed-end questions that will add additional context to your final question. If you disagree with the decision taken this might be a powerful way to express your opinion and help your superior realise that there might be a different solution.
Using the funnel questions tactic with your superior might be tricky. Managers will often not like the idea of being asked multiple questions regarding their decision. They might feel put on the spot and not respected for their knowledge and expertise. Therefore, you should consider all the current factors you have before going down this route.
I only use funnel questions in one-to-one situations. For example, in a work conversation over drinks or during your weekly one to one with your manager. Funnel questions might be harmful for your relationship if being asked in front of a wider group of people as your manager could consider this as a threat for his professional appearance. When used sparingly and in the right setting they can help show your manager how you are focused on the detail which will of course lead to stronger relationship and trust between you and your superior.
Ask questions, but also think about this…
Questioning and debating is a must for a healthy relationship with your manager. That said if you get to the point, even after getting into the detail, where you disagree with the outcome keep these three things in mind. It’s what I try to do:
My experience though is that you should always do your best, try and question every decision taken within a professional environment but also keep up and follow the professional work ethics. You will be surprised about the positive outcomes, ideas and challenges you will face which will of course arm you with a new arsenal of professional skills and improved relationships. This will all serve you well during your career growth and is why you should (almost!) always question your manager!
For more on the importance of asking questions see Miriam Gilbert's column "The Meaning in Why".