Your team member asks you a question – ask don’t tell!

“Uhm….,” he starts, and you think: “uh-oh …. this will take a while…”. Jack, a member of your team, started working with you six months ago. He still feels a little bit insecure, and it seems he wants to do everything just perfectly. Part of you wants to help him, part of you is a bit annoyed thinking: “Get over it already!” But whatever you do, Jack will continue to ask questions and you will continue to want to help him. This little article might help you enjoy the process more.

Last week we spoke about the difference between “seed questions” and “water glass questions”. “Seed questions” are questions that don’t have a “right” answer (e.g. “How do I deal with customer X?” ). Water glass questions are requests for information that is missing (e.g. “Where do I find the order forms on our shared drive?”)  This distinction is a useful tool for managers or even members of the same team who want to support a junior team member in their development.

When someone like Jack comes to you for advice it seems fastest to simply give the answer Jack is looking for. In the long run, however, this won’t help Jack develop into the confident coworker that you need.

Here are a few steps that might help:

  • Ask yourself: is Jack asking a “water glass question” or a “seed question”?
  • If Jack is merely asking for information, give him the information and also some hints as to where he might look when you’re not there. (E.g. “The order form is in the Admin folder — just in case I’m not here, can I also show you a search function for our shared drive so that you can find things when I’m not around?”)
  • If Jack is asking “seed question” (“How do I deal with customer X?”), try not to give your answer but ask a few questions for example:
  • “What is important about customer X?”
  • “What do you think you need to get right here?”
  • “What have you already tried?”
  • “What are your ideas?”
  • “How can I support you?”

John Whitmore, the father of modern-day coaching, used to show a very interesting video on the power of questions. You can find it here:

This video contrasts two approaches to learning or skill development: one person is taught to play golf, the other is coached to play golf. Both achieve similar immediate results, but the beginning golfer, who was asked questions had a heightened sense of agency, awareness and responsibility: all qualities that we need more of in today’s work environment.

If you want to see more videos like this one, please subscribe to our YouTube channel where we constantly update our playlists on coaching and leadership:


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