Managing people is no longer as simple as telling them what to do. With today’s interdependent work teams, it’s not enough to give instructions about how to do jobs. More is required if you want to bring out the best in people and engage them in collaborative partnerships for high performance.

“Carpenters have hammers, dentists have picks, and physicians have stethoscopes. It is hard to envision any of these people working in their chosen fields without their basic set of tools. Managers, too, have a basic set of tools: questions.” ~ Terry J. Fadem, The Art of Asking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers (FT Press, 2008)

Good communication is a hallmark of healthy organizations, but it’s often founded on the belief that employees thrive when given clear directions. In today’s increasingly complex organizations, it’s not enough; you need to ask questions.

Leaders who ask evocative questions instead of giving instructions set the stage for better communication, employee engagement and high performance, especially when they’re charged with supervising knowledge workers.

Effective communication encourages two-way conversations that traverse hierarchies and power differentials. Without this, leaders create high-risk environments.

After airplane crashes, chemical and nuclear accidents, oil spills, hospital errors and cruise-ship disasters, expert reviewers have frequently found that lower-ranking employees had information that could have prevented these events or lessened their consequences. Senior managers were guilty of ignoring their subordinates and being consistently resistant to hearing bad news.

In the coaching work I do in organizations, I’ve learned that employees often worry about upsetting their bosses, so they settle for silence—a decision that exposes their organizations to risks with potentially irreversible outcomes. This dynamic plays out in government offices, hospitals and corporations with divisions in power and status, regardless of how democratic and “fair” they claim to be.

How can you create a climate that encourages people to speak up, especially when safety is on the line? How do you convince your staff to correct you when you’re about to make a mistake?

Learn to ask the right questions instead of telling your staff what to do. Show an interest in their opinions, their ideas, and their lives. Asking genuine questions about a person is a prerequisite to building a relationship on trust.

In my work in organizations, I’ve seen plenty of managers who ask questions the wrong way. Asking leading questions is just another way of telling. Ask real questions out of curiosity and learn from your people.

What do you think about asking more questions in your work group? What’s been your own experience managing people? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.