How do you respond when you learn an employee has made a mistake?

As a leader, are you more likely to advise her on what she should have done—or, do you take a moment and ask the employee, “What did you learn from that?”

Practicing empowering questions—rather than just giving someone a flood of advice, as discussed in this video featured on Forbes—can help you equip and empower those you lead.

Become a Stronger Leader

Empowering questions are open-ended and solution-oriented questions. They are thought-provoking, challenging questions that cause a person to search for answers and new possibilities. When used authentically, we help others become more mindful of their thoughts, emotions, and actions.

When an employee moves into a new role in an organization, for example, you may ask that individual, “What do you envision will be your first accomplishments in this role?” Based on their response, follow-up questions could be, “What is your game plan to do that?” Or, “What, if anything, is a barrier in achieving your first steps in your new role?”

These kind of questions focus more on how an outcome can be accomplished (right brain thinking), rather than focusing only on if something can be accomplished (left brain thinking).

Using empowering questions is a key part of the leadership and culture at Nick’s Pizza & Pub, says Nick Sarillo, founder, CEO, and “Primary Keeper of Purpose and Operational Values” of the Illinois-based family-friendly restaurants.

“The days of ‘do what I say, not what I do, because I told you to’ are long gone,” says Nick. “This younger generation has a higher expectation of leaders: They expect leaders to model the behaviors they are asking for, and they want to know why it’s important,” he says.

In an industry where most employees leave in under a year, Nick’s Pizza & Pub’s annual turnover rate is less than 20 percent. The company puts “people before the numbers,” with a focus on equipping employees to do their jobs while advancing the company’s mission. (Despite the focus on people first, profits second, the restaurants gross about six times the revenue of the typical pizza restaurant.)

“I have found that this generation exceeds my performance expectations when we facilitate them to solve their own problems at work through open-ended questions. Then we just have to get the managers out of their way, because they will over-achieve,” adds Nick, who has also written the book, A Slice of the Pie: How to Build a Big Little Business, on his purpose-driven, highly engaged company culture.

Empower Those You Lead

Instead of merely giving advice or direction, empowering questions invite someone to think of and express what they are really thinking. aileron blogclick to tweet.png This tool allows leaders to:

  • Generate deeper conversations and greater clarity
  • Help an individual “own” the solution they arrive at
  • Help you find new solutions to repetitive problems

You can benefit from using empowering questions across your organization if you aspire to:

“Supporting our team to use open-ended questions reinforces our learning organization,” says Nick. “It’s a tool to cultivate and bring out employees’ ‘inner genius.'”

Using this approach to asking questions helps leaders authentically support team members to be innovative and more self-aware, learn from their mistakes, have higher retention of job skills during training, and “most of all, our hiring hits the bullseye, not just the target,” says Nick.

Nick’s Pizza & Pub starts with open-ended questions from day one in employees’ orientation, in a process they call “feedback loop,” which continues throughout all of their training.

During the two-day interview training workshop, employees learn how to effectively use open-ended questions to “peel back the onion,” and go deeper into what a situation really is about, and who a person really is.

In this process, a person cannot get certified in interviewing if they use closed-ended

questions. “For example, we don’t ask the applicant we are interviewing if they like our values; we use open-ended questions to learn how specifically those values are showing up in their behaviors in their life, now. This is essential for hiring for culture fit.”

In total, Nick’s Pizza & Pub uses 4 different approaches to teaching and coaching. One of those approaches is specifically designed around open-ended questions, and the other three are more of a “tell” or a “join” approach. “We are very intentional—with every word and every part of our feedback,” says Nick.

Tips for Using Empowering Questions

Empowering questions typically start with “what,” “how,” or “when.” They allow people involved in the conversation to shift their mindset, in part because the questions are not intimidating or judgmental in nature. These are questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no.”

Questions that start with “why” or “who” are typically not empowering questions. These inquiries can imply blame or judgment. These tend to shut down conversation and exploration more quickly than open-ended questions.

When using empowering questions authentically, keep in mind these 3 strategies for effective delivery:

  • Use a non-judgmental tone of voice
  • Allow your question to sit; don’t be afraid to wait for a response
  • Avoid asking multiple questions at once

Lead by Example 

Beyond training your staff on using empowering questions, one of the quickest ways for all your people to start using more powerful questions is to start doing so yourself. aileron blogclick to tweet.png Consciously asking empowering questions helps to nurture an environment where individuals feel they have the freedom and support they need to develop.

As you get started, remember that there are no wrong questions. Never make it manipulative–come from a true place of curiosity when using this tool. If you find yourself starting to ask a “yes” or “no” question, simply stop and rephrase the question into an empowering one.

Use Empowering Questions to Help Employee’s Bring You Solutions

Are there things you wish you could say to those you lead, but believe you can’t?

Rethink the way you approach tough or much-needed conversations by having a conversation with an Aileron Leadership Coach to learn an approach that can help you ask more effective questions. Email us today to schedule time and get the tools that can help you have more powerful and pivotal conversations—including the ones you don’t want to have.