Emerging Tech

My favorite 7 questions

Most managers know there's a lot of insight to be gleaned from talking to the troops. This week John McKee provides his favorite seven questions used by leaders of various organizations.

Great leaders seem to be able to get key information in a matter of seconds. But most can take hours to root out the same information -- if they ever get it at all.

Over the years, I've found that the hallways (real or virtual) of most organizations, when used effectively, can be great opportunities to keep in touch with the "real world." However, making the most of quick engagements is a skill most leaders never develop fully. That's unfortunate because they're failing to take advantage of one of the best ways to keep in touch.

For those of you who can be lost for words when such opportunities arise, here are seven of my favorite questions for getting in touch with staff. Each one can provide more insight than a two-hour meeting with the entire team:

1. What's the biggest issue on your plate right now? Most people will respond to this. Often it's nothing more than a complaint or a status report, but it can lead to another question or two that will be enlightening. 2. If I could do just one thing to make you more successful, what would that be? This one often surfaces ongoing issues that are slowing progress. Usually a lower-level individual could resolve it, but that just hasn't happened. 3. What's the dumbest thing the company (or department) is doing (or working on)? Ask this question a few times to different people and you'll soon find one or two things that should be put to death. 4. If you had my job, what would you focus on? Depending on the level of the person you ask, I assure you that you'll hear some pretty interesting ideas that otherwise wouldn't have surfaced. But "little" things can make a big difference to a group's productivity and satisfaction. 5. What's waking you up at night? This has two benefits: First it shows who is really thinking a lot about issues that need to be fixed. You should spend more time with them. Second, it can make it clear who treats the job as simply a paycheck. Do you really want them around? 6. Do you have the tools and resources you need to do your job in the best possible way? I'm always amazed at how a project can be stalled by something that is widely available elsewhere in the company. 7. How can I help you to be more successful? This is a great bonding question. If you really mean it and the team believes that to be the case; it can rally them. But don't ask if you won't deliver on their feedback.

Feedback is a big factor in the impact of the ongoing success of these hallway conversations. The best leaders get back to the individual who gave the ideas -- if you can't do it personally then send an email or make a call to show that you responded to their suggestion or comment.

Even better: "broadcast" the question, where it came from, and what was changed as a result. This will encourage other people to make suggestions or surface issues that need to be attended to. The cumulative effect will be impressive.

With that in mind -- here's question 8:  What's stopping you from doing this immediately?

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

50 comments
Warrior_King
Warrior_King

I will be glad when I am managing a team again. Nothing like building a high performance team. I believe these points are right on target. I also like a level honest and open playing field where these questions and others are coupled with valid points to make us be more effective.

mario.aguirre
mario.aguirre

When you state "What???s waking you up at night? This has two benefits: First it shows who is really thinking a lot about issues that need to be fixed. You should spend more time with them.", I agree to spend more time with him... To help him to solve the problem. You do not need people getting burned out, stressed up nor mentally il because something is taking their resttima apart from them. That is ver near to slavery. If you think, because I can segregate work topics from home topics, and give each of them their own niche and their own spaces, that I'm only for my paycheck, then you are some kind of southern cotton producer, hoping their slaves could work without eating and sleeping..

Jeep16
Jeep16

John, I hope I am misinterpreting your comments in question 5, but I do not want staff thinking about their work 24/7. Not only is it not healthy, but it does not make for a balanced employee. While many of these questions are good for feedback and discussions, I would prefer to replace #5 with questions in light of Google's #3 from Project Oxygen: "Express interest in your team members??? success and personal well-being: Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work." (You can find this in numerous web articles - one is here: http://bestpracticesforbusiness.com/2011/03/18/eight-behaviors-of-better-bosses/ )

bearmr
bearmr

Great list of questions. I don't think these should be restricted to IT staff. Slight modifications to these questions would be good to ask other departmental managers as well. Thoughts?

nyexpat
nyexpat

To me, this will give a good indication if you even WANT to work at a place. I've asked some of them (never asked the wake up one) and they're pretty effective in getting people to open up/talk more than they thought they would. ;-) If only I could find another employer with the same great attitude and hours of my last one. Smart people. Flexible NORMAL hours (9-5, unless if had something major going on that YOU, out of professionalism needed to stay late for -- NOT required). If companies actually CARED about the quality of work that was produced (and yest quantity -- but that DOESN"T mean just putting in hours) EVERYONE, including mgt. would be MUCH happier AND more productive! It truly DOES work. I've SEEN it!!!!

wildcatfan101
wildcatfan101

So what you are saying is that if your employees do not take their work home with them they're only there for a paycheck. I have found that employees that have a healthy work/life balance not only produce better work, they are also happier and much more willing to put in those often needed "extra" hours. When you have employees taking work home and not being able to relax and recharge from a demanding job a few things happen. They call in "sick" more often, they take longer to complete tasks, and they are much more likely to jump ship during a major project.

blarman
blarman

I agree with most of the other comments about #5 "What's keeping you up at night." For me, it's my 6-month old baby, not anything at work. When I leave work, I leave work at work. It sure isn't something I would ever ask because if you can't leave work at work, you are stressing yourself out and reducing your productivity. Studies have shown countless times that burnout increases with the number of hours you work per week. If you can't leave work at work, you are "working" and thinking about work during the times you should be worrying about your family and other responsibilities. I know that for people at my company that stay glued to their pagers, they rarely if ever take a real vacation - they take work with them - and never really give themselves the break that would help revitalize them. Thanks, but that's a question better left unsaid and left to #3.

ppg
ppg

If these questions are being asked with the intention to decide "Do you really want them around" the responses are going to be guarded at best and more like to be what they think you want to hear or what will get them the best bonus. Even if you don't intend the questions that way most workers are going to epect you to judge them based on their answers. Having the answers to these questions will make you a better manager but you will have to be a bit more subtle than just asking them as stated if you expect to get useful answers

hectorj102
hectorj102

Unless the job compensates accordingly, no employee should be worrying about what's going on after they "clock-out". That said, I'm one of those people who has never been able to turn off the work-related thinking and I've got the medical history to prove it ... :-(

gwoodford
gwoodford

OK, because nothing about my job is keeping me awake at night hardly means I'm just there for a paycheck. Hey, I've got a family and other things going on in my life besides work. When I lose my job, I've still got things at home going on, things I don't always solve and things that can linger for years. And I should stress myself even more and worry about my job at night too? Yes, that's a good recipe for a short life.

Slayer_
Slayer_

I can guarantee the company cares nothing about me, so why should I care about it? I do exactly what they pay me to do. If they stop paying me, I stop working for them. Its a simple truth.

watkinsrn
watkinsrn

Question 7 is the most important, in my opinion. "But don???t ask if you won???t deliver on their feedback." I've lost track of the number of times in various companies that management has asked employees what's holding them back, generating a bunch of well-targeted and relevant suggestions, only to reject them all with "we can't do that."

maxdawg4
maxdawg4

This question is way too generalized. I think about (and work) my job and deliverables much of my waking day. Sleep time is personal time and should not be interrupted by work. If work is waking a person up at night, they are overworked and will burn out. What then? Find the next sap who will work until they burn out? What about when it's your turn to burn out? Why put an interviewee in a position to juggle a question like this when (by your original statement) the question is to "weed out" those who don't have work on their mind 24/7? Lofty, but obtainable goals turn into manageable milestones that let people see success each day, and sleep soundly at night. People will perform better and more consistently over the long haul when given the chance to succeed in both their professional and personal lives.

pmtk724
pmtk724

The general idea of the list is good, but must be tempered. Some of the IT veterans on my staff would roll on the floor laughing if I asked them what keeps them awake at night. They would probably respond that it was gas. Seriously, cliches and overused terminology are the bain of wannabe leaders. I do whole-heartedly support the idea of one on one communications often, and make time once a month for a "touch base" session, whether scheduled or unscheduled. I might add that adopting the practice of building a personal development plan for each team member is an exercise that opens wide most doors to your teams' thinking and concerns. Good reminders in this list. It does get to the core of leader communication, whatever route you choose to get there.

daphne.jeffries@us-egi.
daphne.jeffries@us-egi.

I asked these questions yesterday and I am sad to say that my team's responses were not what I expected. I gave them a follow up date where we would discuss possible solutions. I usually ask for project status reports. This is not the same thing. Good list.

reisen55
reisen55

If you are a professional, these banal questions do not need to be asked. I worked for a moron once who went out and purchased a ton of shirts with a department name-logo on them for us to wear, and it was a joke. We were all professionals, had more experience than he ever had and did not need this silly method of recognition. And the moron was often the reason why we did not sleep at night to boot!!!

mattohare
mattohare

This is not a question of who is there just for the paycheck. That is a rather extreme generalisation. If something about my workplace was waking an employee up at night, I'd have it changed. I want my employees relaxing when they're home, and not so stressed by the job that they can't sleep.

jenmilam
jenmilam

I have seen managers ask these questions and then get mad when folks are honest with them. It doesn't matter which questions you ask if employees don't feel safe answering honestly.

CareerCoach
CareerCoach

The smart leaders ask and learn from them.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Then they'll probably allow you to Friend them and then you can see who's on Facebook while they should be working. Cool.

pgit
pgit

You hit it on the head. I know I am suspicious of higher-ups asking me "how are you doing?" and I suspect most people are. Most people would consider this as being a trap and would tend to give bland, mostly positive answers. You're right, if you really want the answers, good or bad, you need to disarm people's natural survival instinct.

pgit
pgit

I hear ya on the medical history... I have learned how to shut it off, though. Cheer up, there's light at the end of that tunnel. By the time I hit 50 years old the constant preoccupation with my responsibilities went away. I found I'm actually more productive this way. BTW around the same time I actually started coming up with the actual solutions to tough problems in my dreams. Pleasant dreams, with just a fleeting reference to something I've been working on, like "oh, and do this..." in the midst of flying over Antarctica or diving the wreck of the Titanic...

VBJackson
VBJackson

SinisterSlay, "The Company" may not care about you, but I think the whole point of the article is that GOOD managers and leaders DO, and these are examples of questions to both: a) Show that the person asking them does care. b) Get the feedback that they need to help you while they help the group/department/company. If they stop paying me, I stop working for them may be a simple truth, but if you are part of a group then you need to understand that "I do exectly what they pay me to do" can put you on the short list for that, particularly in these economic times. Just doing what you are told usually won't get you fired, but if there is a budget cut, etc., and someone HAS to go then good managers are going to keep the people that go above and beyond. I don't say that you have to put the company FIRST, although I will admit that question 5 does kind of give that impression, but I do say that you have to care about more than just getting paid, and good managers have to care about (or at least understand) the people that work for them.

nyexpat
nyexpat

Shows a total lack of innovation and b-lls.

Slayer_
Slayer_

First: "We want to hear your thoughts and suggestions" So I make a few "Sorry but we are not making any changes to our plan, and its up to you to make it succeed even if it turns out to be a disastrous plan." So basically "I am making a plan, you have to do it, and in the event that it fails, its your fault, not mine, even though I ignored yours and everyone elses advice" And she wonders why I don't trust her...

jthomson
jthomson

The author wasn't literally expecting that each employee worth keeping wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about work (although it can happen). The expression is a cliche and he is asking about underlying problems that affect either your own job or the overall goals of the department or organization.

pflapham-23737826629493199154303227527571
pflapham-23737826629493199154303227527571

Nothing like an avalanche of questions that can be perceived as invasive. Read the article! These are INFORMAL water cooler questions: Use ONE, in high touch conversations with ONE employee ONLY when the opportunity avails itself. Make a mental note of the response and write it down at your own desk. Later that week, ask the same question of another team member. Theyll begin talking amongst themselves. Youll get much better responses. Know your people: The same question MUST be asked in different ways depending on the person. These questions arent for governmental inquisitions. These are to be helpful to the TEAM! People dont care what you know until they know you care. If people know you dont care, theyll respond with reservation and *tell the boss what they want to hear*. Why am I being asked this? I my job on the line? People are gun shy. Ease into these questions! Furthermore, now there is a deadline for response! Great! Yet another thing on the plate that is required and will be ignored by management. There is a prime opportunity for management follow-up here. If policies actually change due to the feedback, then the team will be much more responsive to the NEXT question in the future.

MeijerTSR
MeijerTSR

...I WILL NOT work for you nor with you! Your first sentence tells me all I need to know. A manager that could care less about my opinions? A coworker that knows everything and will not listen to any else???s input? Been there, ain't going back!!

mario.aguirre
mario.aguirre

@mattohare I totally agree with you. If you wake up at night because of work issues, I can only guess that a) you're workaholic or b) you are near a burnout. When work stress it's so high that you are thinking about issues 24x7, there is no rest for you, so, there is no good performance from you... It's a vicious circle..

alberto.utsumi
alberto.utsumi

I really try not to wake up night worried about things, but it dopesn??t mean that I??m just there for paycheck. If I don??t sleep well, I can not "survive" other day.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

jenmilam YES! Skills problem = within manager's control. Attitude problem = within manager's control. "Why don't you care a damn about your job, and what can I do to change your mind?" If you can ask that question and accept whatever answer comes back, then and only then can you call yourself a manager. jenmilam you are right! If you can't handle honest feedback then you are not a manager you are an order-issuer and they ought to sell toilet paper with your picture on it!

pgit
pgit

One job I had the co-workers took me aside and filled me in on a few no-nos. One was that the president/CEO often asked questions like this, and any negativity, complaint, even valid criticism or suggestion was used to fire you, or collect strikes against you toward that end. He literally wanted you to say "why, I sleep safe and sound every night, things are going so smoothly here!" Or "there's nothing I can think of... everything is perfect, right down to the location of the fire extinguishers!" I remember almost all of the other of my coworkers raised this one issue. They were adamant, do NOT ever answer any of the CEOs questions literally or honestly. I would imagine this is more common than a sincere boss, at least at the highest levels.

irene
irene

Equally important is how the responses are received, and then what I do with the feedback. Asking the questions is only the first step.. This is a great compilation of questions! There is no reason to not start asking them immediately.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I've also seen someone who was told that there would be no repercussions for anything they said get fired on the spot.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Especially since many who are feeling, probably already fear for their job.

Slayer_
Slayer_

After a round of layoffs, my loyalty pretty much hit bottom. And almost as soon as I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable, its time for another corporate reorganization. To which I was moved from the department entirely and was set as a business analyst for our products. (this was good, its kind of like a promotion) Then, without warning, they decided again to move me back to development, effectively my old position, but with a new boss, and a lot less empowerment. Its so disorganized I still don't even have a title, a full month after they moved me, my new boss still hasn't even spoken to me. We have a plan though. My supervisor, who was effectively demoted back to development, had this idea. Since we no longer have any BA's looking out for our interests or support our development. And we are no longer allowed to do our own analyst work. We are going to be extremely nit picky on any work we get, citing things like "does not fit with our development model" To keep forcing the work back to the already bloated bureaucracy. This way, our request count will be low, making it look like we have little work or high productivity, but the BA's for the other office will have a lot, showing that they need to hire more (promote me back :) ), force them to work harder, or, ideally, give us the power to do our own analyst work again. And therefore get it right the first time. This seems win win to me, even if it fails, we end up looking like gold because it looks like we are working hard to keep quality high.

patg00
patg00

if something is bothering you that much, it is really your responsibility to tell the manager before it starts "keeping you up up at night". And if your boss, is a total moron who you feel you can't talk to, they wouldn't ask this anyway.

vin2010
vin2010

hi dear, Samw with me , i am in half circle giving performance but rest are same. How can i come out from this circle. Thanks vinayak

Dknopp
Dknopp

It is about time that managers understand that stress needs to be handled, not tamped down until the heart explodes and you get another e-mail about how co-worker Joe died from a massive heart attack because he could not get any rest at night worrying about the application test scheduled for the next day - or code that does not work - or server problems - or org "restructoring". Medical science has proven that the lack of sleep - insomnia is a key factor in blood pressure problems, diabetes, mental health ( almost all schizophrenics and people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - OCD are insomniacs. And, no you do not have to wash your hands 25 times to be OCD, just compulsively thinking a lot about "issues that need to be fixed" can be OCD ) and many more diseases that involve stress hormones and the lack of sleep. Now, of course the "what keeps you awake at night" question is just supposed to mean what is the biggest problem, oops, I mean challenge, you have, but unfortunetly if you are going to base your perception on the person because they have things under control and do not have a pat answer for you then it is not just a question, you want them to be part of the "stressed out club" I know certain types like to brag about how their life is so hectic and "crazy", but they love it! Until they die.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Company I was consulting for, wanted to fire a delivery driver for cash shortages. The driver replied that he knew how the company owners were cheating on income tax. Keep a pearl harbor file. It'll come in useful one day.

pgit
pgit

A few weeks ago, the employees of a ship maintenance company in Alaska had had enough, and with a lot of prompting from my son finally got up the gumption to approach the owner as a unified front to seek redress for grievances. On the arranged day, the owner started off seemingly sincere, asking for any input as to why people were unhappy. Nobody was speaking up, so my son started in. No sooner did he open his mouth but the guy fired him, right in front of all the others. In the process he said he'd wondered who the "trouble maker" was that was stirring up the other employees. The sick thing was these people had worked there for years and had been grumbling about the same complaints for years before my son came along. BTW he said that was the best thing that happened to him in Alaska. He walked right into a different job that afternoon, making over 10 times the money and working 1/2 the hours... and it much better conditions, too.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Which shouldn't be hard, our development methodology is totally different between the offices. We work in a "garbage in garbage out" sort of way. Allowing the user to do whatever they want. The other office uses an ironclad grip on what the user can do, making required fields, data to be entered in specific formats and specific order. Since we have no one trained in our methods on our side anymore, we will be expected to reject any work requests that don't conform, its not really a matter of choice, its just the part I look forward too :)

gechurch
gechurch

I can sympathise with your position, but you might want to rethink your plan. I can guarantee that being nit-picky and saying 'no' to work your managers are telling you to do will not make them think you are working hard to keep quality high.

Slayer_
Slayer_

But you never know, the situation may improve. I try to be an optimist.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

@SinisterSlay, I hope your resume is current. It sounds like you'll be needing it soon. When you believe that telling your employer "does not fit with out development model" is "win-win", it's quite obvious to most people that you are redundant.

Dknopp
Dknopp

Not sure of the question, but meditation is a good start if you mean you want to know how to stop thinking about work 24-7.

Shadeburst
Shadeburst

Dknopp agreed! This discussion forum is for polite people otherwise we'd call it anal wouldn't we. A boss who expects me to lie awake at night worrying about the company's problems, or they don't want me around? I'd advise them to make a booking for a psychological checkup, soon.

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

He should tell his former co-works about his new job. And, maybe he could recruit them, too. Finders fees are a good form of revenge.