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Managers can boost productivity by changing one word in their questions

Inquiry-based managing could boost productivity and engagement.

Managers can boost productivity by changing one word in their questions
[Source photo: MART PRODUCTION/Pexels]

Leaders are grappling to understand and cope with emerging technologies, cybersecurity challenges, social and economic upheaval, and environmental sustainability. But their top concern, according to IBM, is productivity: 48% of CEOs now believe this will be their highest priority over the next three years.

It’s not hard to see why. Challenging markets demand smaller margins. Plus, U.S. productivity growth has been all but stagnant in recent years, averaging just 1.4% annually despite huge advances in digital technology. Comparatively, between the post-WWII period of 1948-70, this figure was 2.8%.

Business leaders looking to improve the productivity of their staff may think the solution lies within major organizational change or vast financial investments in technology. But have you ever stopped to consider that enhancing the skills of our managers could be the answer?


Poor-quality managers impact team engagement by as much as 70% and we know disengaged employees are less productive. The truth is, many managers are (through no fault of their own) ill-equipped to deal with the people side of management, having been promoted into this role “accidentally” due to their high performance elsewhere. As a result, they can lean into a management style that favors commanding and controlling their team, making them accountable for all the decision-making and problem-solving.

Inevitably, when a manager constantly fixes, solves, and directs an employee’s every action daily, that employee loses ownership of their work, and is robbed of the opportunity to think for themselves, engage properly with a task, and develop independence within a role.

The very definition of being a manager means one can only achieve goals through other people; by constantly needing to be involved in every decision-making process, managers become a metaphorical roadblock or bottleneck for every project, not only affecting their own output but hampering that of their team too. To achieve more, managers must embrace the paradox that they do less by stepping away from the idea that they are there to manage and instead become enablers of others.

But what if a question was the answer? What if businesses could leverage the huge influence of their managers to develop teams with drive and independence, simply by learning to stop, think, and ask a powerful question?


When a team member flags a problem, it’s easy to give them an immediate solution. Instead, a more effective approach would be to stop and resist this urge. Use that moment to think and reflect. Managers should ask themselves “How can I help this person get better at a task so that next time this problem arises, they feel confident enough to make the right decision of their own accord?”

The questions you ask should be about helping the employee come to a conclusion using their knowledge, and developing the confidence to tackle similar situations in the future. Questions should guide their thinking, and not simply be an opportunity to gather more information so that you can solve the problem for them.

Avoid asking “why” questions, as these can often sound critical or assign blame. Replace them with “what” questions, that encourage an employee to analyze the facts:

  • What made you think that?
  • What are the reasons for this?

Avoiding “why” questions removes any hint of blame, encouraging team members to share their thinking process within an environment in which they feel safe and trusted.


Learning to ask a powerful question is a deft skill for managers. But to truly maximize the effect of doing so, managers must also practice active listening during these moments. That means putting down your phone, not glancing at your screen when an email pings, and giving an employee your full attention.

Managers can often perfect the asking of powerful questions but fail when it comes to the next part, by interrupting with your observations and thoughts which risks closing down the other person’s thinking.

Ultimately, consider what an employee isn’t saying, what their emotional state is, and where the conversation needs to go for them to reach the right answer of their own accord. Ask open-ended questions if they begin to get lost, “That would be a great solution, is there a way we could bypass that step to achieve XYZ.”

Helping managers learn how and when to ask powerful questions (rather than directing and firefighting themselves) creates a culture where everyone’s contributions are valued and multiple perspectives are considered. Inevitably, this leads to better, more collaborative outcomes and higher levels of employee engagement, as team members feel a sense of ownership and fulfillment over their own work.

Confidence is a two-way street. When managers use an inquiry-led approach, they understand and see their employees’ mental decision-making process in action. As they digest and respond to powerful questions in real-time, they can insert prompts where necessary. As such, managers feel confident in an employee’s ability to make the next right choices and can begin to share accountability for their workload.

When managers delegate in this way, work is distributed more equitably within teams as individuals develop and step up to take accountability. Employees are then empowered by this confidence to do their best work, and productivity is improved.

Improving U.S. productivity growth by as little as 0.8% could unlock an extra $10 trillion in output, according to McKinsey. Managers could hold the key if they can learn to start asking the right questions.

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Dominic Ashley-Timms is the CEO of performance consultancy Notion, creators of the STAR® Manager program. He is also the coauthor of management bestseller The Answer is a Question. More

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