When the team told me that this blog was going to be re-published, I wanted to make sure it still held up, a year later. I thought it would be good for me to check in with a couple of the folks on my team who have heard this from me a lot over the years to see how it hits others and make sure it wasn’t just me.

The people I asked said that they felt both valued and empowered. They were fairly new to their manager roles, taking them on in just the last couple years, and I have seen them grow so much in this time as they learn to trust their instincts and grow as leaders themselves. One of them has even started using “what do you think” with his team. John Maxwell, leadership expert, says that intentionally adding value to people is the core of leadership. What a great way to pay it forward.

That title is a bold statement, right? Especially in these times, when more people than ever are managing remotely, who couldn’t use a simple, free management tool? We are all in strange times right now. Development budgets are cut, managers are balancing work and life in new and stressful ways, and focused attention is hard to come by. This simple and easy tool is a great one to have in your management tool belt at all times, and it can be extra helpful in this time of crisis when your employees need to feel more empowered than ever.

At the risk of overstating, this tool changed my life. A little background to start. I started my career in Human Resources (HR), then went to a software development firm as a consultant implementing their HR software. Then when we rolled out a new employee self-service product, I became a developer (I would say developer-light as I used a coding tool rather than developing code). For a while, I was the only person working on my product from design through to testing and deployment. There were many times when I was in over my head; I was stuck and needed advice. So I did what most people would do in this situation and went to my manager, and 9 times out of 10 he would ask me:

“What do you think?”

It was so simple. It was so frustrating. It was so life changing. Now that I’m a manager, I have appropriated this question for my own use. Here are some lessons I’ve learned on both sides of this question.

Two business colleagues at meeting in modern office.

Hearing “What do you think?” as an employee
For many reasons, before I came in to this role with this particular manager, I wasn’t super confident. And as mentioned before I was swimming in the deep end a bit skill-wise. Additionally, in the past, I had pretty traditional managers who would simply answer a question I asked. But, Bruce was different. He asked, “What do you think?” instead. Here’s what that communicated to me as an employee.

  1. He valued my opinions and thought they were valid.
  2. He trusted that I could think through a question or problem.
  3. His trust in my opinions and skills gave me more confidence.
  4. I knew I had to have thought through the issue completely before I even went to him.
  5. It strengthened my critical thinking abilities.

I’m not going to lie there were times I got frustrated and just wanted the help, but the positives above far outweighed that frustration. These lessons might not seem like much, but they truly were life changing for me. Much of the confidence I have as a leader in my organization today can be traced back to this simple question.

Saying “What do you think?” as a manager
Now as a manager myself, I try to use this question when people come to me for advice as well. I have reached a point in my career where I often cannot directly give advice to my team because I’m too far away from the details and don’t have the knowledge to answer many questions. I guess you could say I’m swimming in the deep end again in a whole different way. So I’ve learned a little of Bruce’s secret in that there were probably times where he was unable to answer my very detailed questions about a product only I knew very intimately. However, there are some other benefits to using the question as a manager:

  1. See all the benefits I experienced above as an employee and how empowered I felt.
  2. You get to see the employee’s thought process and identify where they might have faulty logic.
  3. You don’t have to know it all. (Phew!)
  4. Ideally your employee can share their thought process and present you with a couple options or things they’ve tried. Then you can dig in to any areas they might have missed and you’ve given them the first crack, resulting in the benefits experienced as an employee.
  5. You can affirm the positive thought process and provide input to shape their thinking in the future.

Psychology tells us that “what” and “how” questions are beneficial in that they get people to think about their answers. “Why” questions can put people on the defensive. (See articles here and here.) It’s also important to note that the question needs to be genuine. The nonverbal counts a lot here. Making eye contact, listening and not interrupting are critical in getting the message across. Even though it’s less than ideal, asking these questions via a video conference is still totally doable in these weird times. (Zoom for the win!) Asking “What do you think?” and then disregarding what is shared is more detrimental than not asking the question at all.

I’m not saying that this will work with every employee/manager combination every time. I’m sure there is something about the combination of people involved and what motivates the employee in particular. But, at a minimum, it’s a good option when someone catches you off guard with a question out of the blue that you need some time to think about. At a time filled with uncertainty and anxiety, empowering employees and showing them your trust will go a long way. Give it a try!