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September 23, 2015

A new manager's secret weapon

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on March 22, 2018.

New managers frequently are overwhelmed by the number of new skills they must quickly master. But making a simple shift in how they ask questions is a quick way to start strong, David Brendel writes in the Harvard Business Review.

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Brendel, an executive coach, notes that because new managers are often promoted from technical and operation roles, many don't have the skills needed to succeed as they move up the organizational ladder. For instance, a "physician with superb clinical skills who was assigned to chair a hospital division," might quickly feel out of his or her depth, Brendel notes.

And while maturing as a manager requires a certain amount of experience, Brendel encourages new leaders to start with one simple step: asking more open-ended questions and avoiding directive statements.

According to Brendel, open-ended questions help managers:

  • Promote dialogue and engagement;
  • Gather information about their teams;
  • Build confidence and trust; and
  • Make team members feel valued.

Asking such questions is also a simple, straightforward, and quantifiable way to make progress as a manager quickly, Brendel writes.

Brendel suggests managers start by tracking the number of open-ended questions they ask compared with the number of directive statements. "The ratio of the former to the latter should be high, often in the neighborhood of 10 to 1," based on his experience "with clients who went on to succeed in management roles," he explains.

Getting results

Brendel says a good open-ended question is one that prompts a direct report to think proactively about how to align their activities with the broader goals of the team or organization. For instance, asking, "When will you be ready to master that new technical skill that the CEO wants us to develop?"—rather than "I need you to master that skill by the end of the month"—can prompt a direct report to think through his or her own professional development strategy.

Such questions also give a new manager a good sense of a team member's strengths and weaknesses. "A small subset of direct reports may not respond well to open-ended questions—and that's usually a red flag," Brendel writes. When that happens, managers should "reserve the option to give clear instructions when the direct report isn't responding productively."

But in most cases, Brendel argues that open-ended questions will succeed by promoting good will, providing useful information, and help to ease a new manager into a different type of role. "It's a win-win that builds trust and boosts engagement," Brendel concludes (Brendel, Harvard Business Review, 9/17).

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