Become a Better Manager by Asking the Right Questions

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Nannette Rundle Carroll

Asking the right questions plays a critical role in meeting business objectives and preserving working relationships. Managers can effectively use questions in a wide variety of situations: interviewing, delegating, giving feedback, coaching, problem solving, decision making, and developing employees. Asking questions also shows that a manager pays attention to employees and their ideas.

Managers can Choose from Four Types of Questions:
Open, Closed, Behavioral, and Situational

1. Open Questions
An open or open-ended question broadens the opportunity for a wide array of responses. It provides a chance for the person answering the question to assess and state what he thinks is important, express his opinions, expand upon facts, suggest alternatives, and apply his knowledge in varied ways. Open questions are useful for creative and collaborative problem solving and decision making.

Open questions elicit others' ideas and assessments. Because employees' ideas are considered and ownership is invited, they may bring a higher degree of motivation to the task or project.

When to use: Open questions can be used during interviewing, delegating, project follow-up, monitoring progress on tasks and performance, giving and receiving feedback, coaching, getting employees to assess their achievements and performance, brainstorming, getting new ideas, working collaboratively, listening, clarifying your understanding or theirs, employee development, projects, assessing milestones, project debriefs, and planning for future projects.

Benefits to the manager: Open questions are used to gather facts about the work, learn about your employees' process skills and approaches to the tasks, discover what motivates and is important to them, and get a more well-rounded picture of events by listening to their sides of the story. They help employees develop competencies and confidence, which in turn leads to better work production. They are also used to discover employees' feelings, knowledge levels, skill needs, and views, and so help you to connect with, understand, and build a relationship with them.

Downside: It takes longer to listen to the answers because you can't control the direction of the answers. The purpose is to allow expression and broad-based, wide-ranging responses. You might have to sift through extraneous information.

How to formulate: Typically, open questions start with What, How, or Why. Non-question statements that serve the purpose of an open question start with "Tell me about . . . ," "Describe . . . ," "Let's talk about . . . ," "Compare and Contrast . . . ."

Examples of open questions
—What is your opinion about…?
—What happened that caused you to suddenly miss this deadline?
—What will you do now?
—Describe what happened.

2. Closed Questions
Closed questions invite a yes/no or short answer. The purpose is to elicit facts, to open a conversation, or to serve as a bridge to move the conversation along. They are used when you don't need background information, detail, opinion, or theory.

When to use: Use for the same management situations as for open questions.

Benefits to manager: Saves time if a short answer is all the information needed.

Downside: Improperly used, they can come across as curt or cutting people off. They can also direct someone to agree or disagree, and the manager may miss an opportunity to learn about the person's true thinking.

How to formulate: Typically, closed questions start with directive words such as Where, When, Who, Will, Would, Did, Do, Could, Can, Should, Are, Were, and sometimes the word What.

Examples of Closed Questions:
—When did you send the report to Engineering?
—When should we check progress again?
—Who is the project manager?

3. Behavioral Questions
Behavioral questions use past behavior to predict what a person might do in the future. Behavior is what a person does or says. It is the observable manner in which a person acts or performs under specified circumstances. Behavioral questions refer to actions others can observe by using the five senses.

When to use: Most often behavioral questions are used in interviewing to discover what applicants have accomplished in the past and the way they did it.

Benefits to manager: Allows manager to zero in on specific work scenarios and target how a person has dealt with them in the past.

Downside: Their use is limited primarily to interviewing, unless the manager creatively finds ways to use them in progress discussions, training, and coaching.

How to formulate: There are three elements of a behavioral question: The manager asks the question in the past tense and then asks the candidate to give a specific situation or example and tell exactly how he handled the situation.

Examples of behavioral questions
—Describe a difficult problem you had with a customer and how you handled it.
—Describe what specifically you did as a team leader that made you excel. Please give a specific example.
—Tell me about your biggest organizational challenge on the project so far and how you handled it.

4. Situational Questions
Situational questions invite a person to think about how they would handle a situation that might arise in the future. These are "if/then" questions. They are designed to ask what a person would do, given a specific situation. They are hypothetical in nature and always asked in the future—"Suppose X happened. What would you do?"

When to use: Use situational questions during interviewing, delegating, feedback, coaching, training, role-playing, rehearsing, or preparing for tough situations that might occur. You can use situational questions to do a practical run-through of potential problems and opportunities.

How to formulate: The questioner provides a specific scenario, as opposed to behavioral questions, which request the person answering the question to provide the example. It asks how a person thinks they would handle it in the future, not how they've done it in the past.

Examples of situational questions
—Let's say the CEO asks you "X" in your upcoming presentation. How would you answer?
—If you were asked to increase productivity by 10% on your team, what would you do?

Summing Up
Determining the best questions to ask in order to solve work-related problems and make decisions will be your call, based on your situation. What’s important is to collect an array of questions and become an expert using them at appropriate times.

Asking well-framed questions advances your direct reports’ competency and confidence, thus preventing people problems while increasing cooperation. The more adept a manager is at using questions in management processes, the more each direct report will be working to his or her potential and contributing to team development.

©2010 by Nannette Rundle Carroll. Adapted by permission of the publisher from The Communication Problem Solver: Simple Tools and Techniques for Busy Managers, by Nannette Rundle Carroll. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About the Author(s)

Nannette Rundle Carroll is a popular management trainer, communications consultant, and top-rated AMA faculty member. For more information, visit