Develop Subordinates By NOT Answering Their Questions - BusinessBlog : McGraw-Hill
HR & Training Leadership Small Business

Develop Subordinates By NOT Answering Their Questions

Guest post by Jack Zenger, co-author of How to Be Exceptional.

Based on results obtained from more than 50,000 leaders, developing subordinates is consistently one of the lower scoring leadership behaviors. This is true in every industry and on every continent we’ve studied. Some leaders contend that they just don’t have the time for coaching but what many don’t realize is that a few small and seemingly simple interactions can make a huge difference for employee growth.

One of the most frequently occurring interactions between bosses and subordinates is the process of inquiry therefore a leader’s approach to answering questions can greatly impact a subordinate’s  success.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

A subordinate drops by your office. She asks, “What do you think we should do about getting the technical manual written for our new product? Should we outsource it or try to find someone inside to do it?” Do you immediately provide her with the answer? After all, you have faced this decision countless times and therefore have a strong opinion about the best thing to do. For many leaders, providing answers to questions is what they think they’re expected to do. Isn’t that why they are paid more than others?

Stop Answering the Questions

If I could change one common behavior of nearly all executives it would be to have them stop answering such questions from subordinates. Why? First, by not instantly answering questions from subordinates leaders seize an opportunity for the subordinate’s development.

Think of instead replying with:  “What do you think?” Or, “You’e closer to this than I am, what have you considered?”  This takes you down an entirely different road and produces quite different outcomes. Having them analyze the problem and develop alternative solutions is obviously far more developmental than simply handing them a solution. Should you have a different view, this might be the time to explain your thought processes and to recap your experience. But these ideas are received best after you’ve first heard their opinion. Unless this is a monumental, “you bet the company” decision, it may be wise to have them choose the solution they think best. The most important learning involves the opportunity to make mistakes.

Transform the Relationship

The second benefit from asking a question rather than giving an answer is that it transforms the relationship.  There is no better way to evolve a “teacher-student” or “parent-child” relationship to one of greater equality.  The process of asking “What do you think?” is a powerful message of respect, which is at the heart of every positive, long-term relationship.

Finally, this elevates the subordinate’s confidence. Organizations need people to take initiative and to believe in their own judgment.  Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, frequently noted the importance of driving self-confidence deep into the organization.  How better to do that than simply asking, “What do you think?”

Jack Zenger is a bestselling author, speaker, and a national columnist for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. With more than five decades of experience, Jack is considered a world expert in the field of leadership development and organizational behavior. He is a highly esteemed and influential speaker, consultant, and executive coach with the ability to connect with audiences though compelling research and inspiring stories.


John H. Zenger (Orem, UT) is cofounder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting and leadership development programs for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He is a world-renowned expert on leadership development and organizational behavior. With more than 50 years of experience in his field, he has been named “Top Leader of the Year” by and received the Thought Leader award from ISA.