Embracing the power of questions: How managers can drive better engagement and productivity

4 minute read

The skill of asking better questions is today’s management superpower, says award-wining coach and author Laura-Ashley Timms. She explains how HR leaders can integrate operational coaching into everyday management practices to enable this

Thumbnail image of Laura Ashley-Timms podcast episode for Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It

As workplaces grow increasingly complex, burdened by technological advancements and generational diversity, the need for agile, effective leadership has never been more critical. This calls for a transformation in traditional management roles, starting with the fundamental skill of asking the right questions, says Laura-Ashley Timms, chief operating officer of performance consultancy Notion and co-author of management bestseller The Answer is a Question.

In an interview with The People Space editorial director Siân Harrington for the Work’s Not Working… Let’s Fix it! podcast, Ashley-Timms introduces the concept of the Frankenstein manager, who is made up of bits and pieces of knowledge and experience, and explains why organisations are not set up to ask the right questions. She presents a practical framework for developing the superpower of asking questions and driving action, and shares the results of a research study that demonstrates the effectiveness of operational coaching. Here are seven insights from the episode:

Understanding the modern workplace

Today’s workplace is a dynamic entity, constantly reshaped by new technologies and shifting organisational structures. Managers are often at the forefront of guiding their teams through frequent transitions, such as restructuring and adopting new systems. This fluidity can lead to significant challenges in maintaining stability and focus within teams.

Moreover, for the first time in history, workplaces comprise up to five different generations, each with unique expectations and professional desires. This multigenerational workforce requires nuanced management strategies that respect and integrate diverse perspectives and needs.

The crisis of engagement

One of the most pressing issues facing HR today is the alarming rate of employee disengagement. Only one in five employees is engaged, which significantly impacts overall productivity and workplace morale. This disengagement crisis is often a direct result of outdated management practices that fail to inspire or involve employees effectively.

The superpower of inquiry

Asking questions is a simple yet profoundly effective tool for managers, yet it remains underutilised in many organisations. Questions can open dialogues, foster innovation and encourage employees to think critically and solve problems independently. However, the art of asking the right questions is seldom a focus of managerial training, leaving many leaders ill-prepared to leverage this powerful skill.

Shifting to a coaching culture

Traditional management often involves directives given from the top down. In contrast, coaching focuses on developing individuals, enhancing their strengths and actively engaging them in their growth and the growth of the company. Despite the recognised value of a coaching culture many organisations struggle to implement it effectively.

The core issue lies in the application of coaching in real-world scenarios. Traditional models like the GROW model are excellent in theory but often do not translate well into the fast-paced, multifaceted environments that managers navigate daily. These models require adaptation to be practical and beneficial as part of everyday interactions rather than reserved for formal review sessions.

Operational coaching: A real-time approach

Operational coaching offers a solution tailored for the modern workplace. This approach integrates coaching directly into daily management practices, allowing managers to provide real-time guidance and feedback. It involves an inquiry-led style where managers use questions strategically to facilitate employee thinking and problem-solving on the spot.

The STAR (Stop, Think, Ask, Result) model is an example of an operational coaching framework designed for immediate application. It encourages managers to:

  • Stop: Pause and assess the situation instead of jumping straight into problem-solving.
  • Think: Consider if the moment is right for coaching and what the desired outcome might be.
  • Ask: Use targeted questions to guide employees toward insights and solutions.
  • Result: Focus on actionable outcomes that drive progress and accountability.

Proven benefits of operational coaching

Research supports the effectiveness of this approach. Studies, including those evaluated by prestigious institutions like the London School of Economics, show that managers who adopt operational coaching practices spend more time coaching and less time doing, leading to increased team productivity and higher engagement levels. Notably, these practices have also been linked to improved retention rates and job satisfaction among teams.

Implementing operational coaching

For HR leaders aiming to implement operational coaching within their organisations the following steps can be foundational:

  1. Assess managerial skills: Identify current gaps in managerial practices, particularly around question-asking and real-time problem-solving skills.
  2. Train and support: Provide managers with targeted training on operational coaching techniques, focusing on practical, real-world application.
  3. Measure and adapt: Continuously measure the outcomes of coaching practices and be willing to adapt strategies to better meet the needs of both managers and their teams.

To get more advice on how to ask better questions listen to the full episode From Frankenstein Managers to Operational Coaches: The Power of Questions

Published 1 May 2024
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