Asking the right questions and asking the questions right: How should a project manager communicate with the team?

Why does a manager ask questions?

A manager directs and motivates the team, as well as helps to understand the wishes and requirements of clients, and how to achieve set goals. The manager asks questions in order to:

  • Help the team think more efficiently
  • Help find a solution to a problem of a project or client
  • Better understand people’s motivation
  • Motivate colleagues to grow professionally.

Let’s see which questions are suitable and which are not.

Why is “why?” a bad question?

 “Why?” is a bad question primarily because in almost any situation and in any language it sounds like a complaint. Therefore:

1. It may provoke aggression, defensive behavior, and excuses, and won’t help solve the issue.

As a rule, a person understands why they made a mistake, and does not need a detailed analysis of the reasons, e.g. their own lack of attention. The question “Why?” is perfect for lecturing, yet I hope that this is not your goal.

2. It’s not constructive and does not solve the problem.

It forces a person to reiterate the causes of unconstructive behavior, makes them agonize over the wrong decision, and undermines confidence in one’s own abilities and skills. The manager’s task is to solve the problem as efficiently and quickly as possible, rather than scolding a colleague, tormenting them with a detailed debriefing.

3. It often doesn’t make sense.

If something bad has already happened, just finding out the reasons for the failure won’t change anything.

But if you still want to talk about the reasons, it’s better to ask: “What were the reasons?” This question sounds less aggressive and can facilitate a dialogue.

Is it worth asking closed-ended questions?

Closed-ended questions are not suitable for finding solutions, facilitating effective dialogue, deepening the understanding, or motivating a team. They limit imagination and narrow the possibilities to two options: “Yes” or “No”. In reality, there are usually more options. If you want to help colleagues look at a problem from a new angle or find a custom solution, avoid such questions.

However, there is one case when closed-ended questions are perfectly suited, which is when making arrangements. They are appropriate at the conclusion of negotiations and meetings, when after open-ended questions and detailed answers we clarify whether everyone equally understands the situation and agrees with each other’s conclusions.

With this we can end the topic of bad questions. As you can see, the list is not long. Now let’s see what defines the good question.

Characteristics of the right questions:

1. They’re open-ended questions that don’t start with “Why?”.

2. They help to focus on the problem with the words and phrases such as “yet”, “really”, “what else”, “how exactly”:

  • What else/what other solutions can be proposed?
  • Is this really the problem we are solving?
  • How exactly do you want to do this?

3. They are focused on the result and solution of problems.

4. They are formulated with the responder’s interests in mind.

Suppose a project manager is talking with a senior developer. Something in the system is not working, and this problem must be solved quickly and efficiently. This is the perfect opportunity for a wording such as, “This is a difficult question. But the ability to understand problems of this level will greatly help you in your career.” It would be much more interesting for a developer to maintain such a dialogue than trying to answer a request that sounds like this: “What happened there? Half of the company is in turmoil. If you do not solve the problem, we will fire you.” Or even like this: “The solution to this problem will help our accounting department better cope with the work.” A request aimed at the interest of the interlocutor will always be more effective than the one to which they are not connected to.

5. They help to see new opportunities.

It is important that the questions are directed at the future, not the past.

6. They help activate creativity and ingenuity.

For example, a project manager asks, “Colleagues, can you find a solution to this problem?” And in response, they get a trivial solution that does not work well or not at all. Then you can either accept this answer or ask:

  • What else could we do?
  • Let’s imagine that this problem has already been resolved. In what ways could have this been solved? What’s your opinion?

7. They support and motivate.

8. They turn to emotions. For instance:

  • Do you understand how great it will be for all of us if we solve this problem?
  • Do you understand how many great things you can do if you become a team leader?
  • Do you think you will be happy if you have the opportunity to…?

9. They facilitate a dialogue. Don’t ask rhetorical questions or turn them into long monologues.

10. They can’t be simply answered with “yes/no/maybe”.

Below are three cases and effective questions that will help in solving the problems described. In each case, the first question begs “Why?” or its derivatives. But such questions will not bring a project any benefit.

Case 1

Your team lead just accidentally killed a production database. The first question comes to mind at that moment is “Why?” or “What the hell?”

Instead of these questions and attempts to attack a colleague, it is better to calm down and ask:

  1. How serious is it? – The question is aimed at analyzing the situation.
  2. What can we do? – The question is directed to the future and does not blame anyone for anything.
  3. What else can be done? – This question, like the following two, is aimed at finding a solution to the problem.
  4. Who can we call for help?
  5. What resources do you need?
  6. How else can I help? – Emphasizes your participation and willingness to support a colleague.
  7. What long will it take to recover it? – Clarifies the details and determines the deadline for solving the problem.

Case 2

You have been observing your best senior Java developer for a long time, and after the successful completion of the project, you invited them to become a team lead. But they refused! The first question that pops into your head is “Why?”.

It often happens that competent and experienced specialists don’t want to take leadership positions, although objectively they will be more useful there. Some of them don’t want or are afraid to take on more responsibility. To others it seems that they don’t have enough knowledge.

Falling under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger effect, highly qualified specialists tend to doubt themselves and their abilities. And less competent people, on the contrary, when making mistakes are not able to recognize them and remain convinced of their correctness and superiority.

Some high-class specialists suffer from impostor syndrome, where a person is not able to attribute their achievements to their own qualities, abilities, and efforts. Such people underestimate their level of competence and are confident that they don’t deserve the success they have achieved. They don’t see anything special in their knowledge. “Everyone can do it.”

Therefore, good professionals often have to be persuaded to accept the promotion. By asking such a person the question “Why?”, you will only make them once again think about their “unprofessionalism”, and perhaps try to admit it to you.

But the reasons for the refusal may be completely different. For example, once in my practice a person refused the position of a team leader because they would have to stay in the office and work more. They were happy in their current position, living in a convenient rhythm. They like to relax without being distracted by calls in the evening or on the weekend. “Why do I need more money if I can’t go fishing?”.

Here are some questions that would be suitable for this case:

  • How would you like to develop your career? – Always a very good first question in the conversation about a promotion.
  • What kind of work makes you happy? – The question is aimed at emotions.
  • What do you think helped you do your job so well? – The question hints at the person’s own strengths and helps to understand which way they would like to develop further.
  • What role would be comfortable for you in the near future? – The question is aimed at the future and helps the person think about development.
  • What needs to be changed in order for you to become a team leader? – The question shows that the company appreciates the employee and is ready to meet them.
  • How can a company help you develop your career? – For example, a person may feel that they lack specific skills (perhaps they are right, but they also may simply underestimate themselves). If you instead of the previous question ask “Why don’t you want a raise?”, you will only make the person recognize the lack of the necessary skills and deepen their defensive reaction. By offering help and development support, you can come to a solution that is optimal for both parties.

Case 3

In the middle of the sprint, your Scrum master says that implementing the release’s central task will take two months instead of the planned two weeks. And again, the first question you want to ask is “Why?”, but it doesn’t help to solve the problem.

Good questions in this case would be the following:

  • What can we do to meet the deadline/speed up the process?
  • What resources do we need to meet the deadline?
  • Who should be involved to help the team?
  • Do you have an idea how to make it faster?

But asking the right questions alone are not a guarantee of success. They will be able to help a team or colleague by being presented with the right tone in a suitable environment.

How to ask questions in the right way?

1. Do not implant your own ideas into the question and don’t try to influence your colleague’s answer in advance.

It is much more important to help a person open up and find answers on their own. If we communicate with a senior developer with 15 years of experience, most likely they have all the necessary knowledge in order to solve the problem. Perhaps their ideas will be more productive than yours, it’s just that the developer is stuck in negative thoughts. What they need is to be inspired and receive a little nudge.

Sometimes managers with technical background get creative and start offering solutions to developers, imposing their decisions on them. The team often sees this as a manipulation that only causes rejection.

2. Create a friendly and trusting environment. Your sincere and obvious desire to resolve the problem situation is important.

3. Do not blame or criticize.

Unfortunately, Eastern European culture is often characterized by communication in a condemning manner: “You can’t do this!”, “How did you manage to mess up so bad?” But an acute reaction to a mistake makes the person who made it shut down and does not help in any way to solve the problem. Try to avoid negative judgment.

4. Listen carefully.

Your full presence in the conversation and the desire to hear answers are extremely important. Of course, this is not about physical presence, but about a sincere interest in communicating with a colleague and in a joint search for a solution to the problem that you are discussing.

Here’s a classic case. The manager arranges one-to-one with their colleagues and using an indifferent tone asks about their plans for the future, professional development, etc. One of the colleagues noticed the indifference and asked: “Why are you asking me these questions?” The manager honestly admitted, “The HR department asked me to.”

By the way, the question itself “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is great! It takes you to the future, makes you think in which direction you want to grow, reconsider your plans, etc. The problem is that it has been spoiled recently by diluting its essence. After all, people often ask this question in an interview 5 minutes in, while knowing almost nothing about the person. Five years is a long enough period; not everyone is ready to disclose their future plans to a person they barely know. Besides, is the recruiter ready for a sincere answer, and understands that the dream of living a simpler life in Thailand does not make the applicant a bad candidate here and now? Therefore, in response they receive a standard set of phrases learned from articles with tips on how to get through an interview. If people inside the project team exchange the same standard replicas, it will look even sadder.

In order for a person to sincerely answer a deep question, you must first create a suitable atmosphere. You can encourage someone to think openly only when you trust each other and they are interested.

Even a perfectly composed question asked at the wrong time is useless. Therefore, it is equally important to ask the right questions and ask them in the right way.

Eugene Veselov, Delivery Manager, DataArt

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