Are you asking questions that help your teams solve problems? Or are you interrogating your teammates and then solving the problem yourself?

In my experience managing teams at an early-stage venture-backed company, I’ve found that it’s a mistake to assume you know the answers when a problem arises. Asking the right questions — the right kinds of questions — is more productive.

Why? Well, you’d be surprised how many wrong ways there are to ask a question. For example, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking leading questions and statements disguised as questions. These forms of closed questioning introduce bias and manipulate responses. Research on survey design reveals there’s a 50% disparity in results when questions narrow the options or suggest a desired answer. Your inquiry should be discovery-focused: Keep asking questions to discern the root of the problem and to get context around it.

Questioning More Effectively

At work, your role is to guide the problem-solving, not to own it. Though it’s fine to give recommendations, it’s better to problem-solve with your team than to just hand down an edict. You might think you’re cutting quickly to a solution when you offer one up, but this habit creates dependency on you. Instead, ask empowering questions and let the team handle the issue!

Once you’ve fired off a question, engage in active listening so you’re sure to understand the answers. Focused, active listening triggers a change in people’s views of themselves and others. Active listeners develop greater emotional maturity, openness to new ideas and experiences, and more democratic approaches to dealing with others.

When having problem-solving conversations, think about who’s talking and how much. Leaders should speak very little at the beginning of a conversation: I strive for 20-30% of the time. You won’t be able to discover what your people need and what challenges they face without actively listening. That listening will also help you stay nimble and foster effective team member engagement using your understanding of each individual.

How to Ask the Right Questions

When approaching a difficult workplace problem, consider these strategies to ask the right questions:

1. Ask open-ended questions.

Closed questions — for example, those that can be answered with a yes or no — are often statements masquerading as questions. You don’t want your team members to feel they’re being pushed into a confession of wrongdoing by a detective in an interrogation room.

Closed questions are OK for digging deeper, but start with open-ended questions to understand what seems important. Then ask more direct questions to get to the root problem. Ask several open questions to get data or overall scope, then dig deeper with more targeted questions.

2. Discover the ‘why.’

The “five whys” questioning technique — or drilling down into a problem by asking a series of five “why” questions — can quickly unearth root causes. I begin by asking a “why” question: “Why did we lose that account?”

The idea is to probe the underlying causes of the problem at hand, not to repeatedly ask “why” like a demanding toddler. “Why” questions are a way to get to the root cause and to help someone understand beyond the surface, especially when each question is framed in response to the previous answer. The result is a rich mental picture of a cascading array of factors related to the issue at hand.

Answering three “why” questions in a row typically revs up a team member’s brain for turn-on-a-dime thinking. When you combine the active listening method with the “five whys” discovery technique, you get robust information and a more deeply engaged team member in one fell swoop.

3. Adjust your approach to the person you’re speaking with.

To best address someone you work with, ask yourself some questions first: How did they leave that meeting? Are they confused or frustrated? Did they give off a sense of resolve?

For example, I had one team member who didn’t respond as well to a rapid-fire succession of “whys.” To get the detailed picture I needed from this person, I adopted an active listening approach at a slower pace. I got not only the answers I needed, but also a team member who now feels valued, empowered, and energized to solve problems on his own.

Reflect on the point in the conversation when you saw the other person have a light bulb moment, then think about what got him there. The next time you have a conversation, put that knowledge to use and see what happens. As you build the relationship over time through a series of conversations, your interactions will improve.

4. Focus on the process, not the idea.

People get attached to an idea once they’ve stated it. If you try to dissuade them from it, they may get defensive. However, exploring how they got to the idea instead can get results. Most people are humble enough to change their minds once they’ve learned new information. Instead of attacking or denying your teammates’ ideas, work together to find the best path to get to the larger goal. 

Your objective is to help others loosen their hold on their own ideas and allow them to make new connections. Create an environment where they question their own ideas. Help them understand what they were considering: Are those considerations still relevant? Are there other considerations to account for? These productive conversations will generate new — and stronger — solutions. 

Always default to open-ended questions for discovery and process. This will give you and your team newer, more detailed information to improve the hypothesis of a solution. Use questions to invite your team to uncover problems and solutions for themselves.

Learning about people is what makes leadership so challenging and exciting. If you can do even 70% of this consistently, you’ll be a great manager. You’ll never be perfect — you may get as riled up and defensive as the next person — but you can be flexible in your approach. Asking questions is an art, not a science. Stay agile and creative as you tailor your methods to individual team members. You’ll discover that well-aimed questions can inspire your team to improve processes and find solutions on their own.