When to Ask vs. When to Tell as a Leader

Inclusive leaders know when to ask vs. tell.  Often, asking your team as a leader leads to better business results.  When to ask vs. when to tell?

One of the many conundrums of leadership is knowing when to tell versus knowing when to ask an employee to come up with their own idea and/or solution.  How often are leaders drug into problem solving situations or idea generation brainstorms and expected to have all the answers.  That must be exhausting as a leader to feel like you have to have all the answers all the time.  It’s just not possible.  The best leaders ask questions.  Yet, sometimes the team legitimately does not know the answer either.  It’s no fun as a leader to ask the same question the team had expected you to answer, and receive confused faces in return.  That’s embarrassing.

The art of knowing when to ask versus tell is a lesson I learned early in my leadership journey.  Here’s my story.

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My Story

Early in my career, I led a team of operations associates and inexperienced supervisors.  I honestly did not know all the answers.  I was new to the role, new to the facility, so I had to rely on the team for a lot of help.  I went to my manager with lots of questions.  When my supervisors came to me with questions about process changes or safety protocols, I responded, “what does the team think?” or “what if I was not here, what would you say?”

After a few wild-eyed looks, they began coming to me with solutions rather than problems, knowing I would not give them the solution.  Yet, while my supervisors were inexperienced leaders, they had experience with the process, and often knew the answers to their more tactical questions.  Through coaching, and asking questions, I got them to feel more confident and motivated to own the problems and bring them to resolution proactively.

At the same time, I was also doing the same thing with my boss.  Going to him with the hairy problems, and asking him for guidance.  He did the same thing to me, “help me understand…” followed by a series of playbacks and questions.  And, I honestly did not know the answer.  It was so frustrating to sit there feeling like an idiot when I needed direct advice.  I needed to be told.  Through months of coaching and “help me understand” conversations, I did eventually get there, but some handholding along the way may have gotten me proficient more quickly.

So how to avoid asking when a team member needs to be told, and telling when they really need to be asked?

Situational Leadership

A proven tool, SLII tackles the ask versus tell challenge beautifully with its 2×2 matrix based on the employee’s development level.  Essentially, it boils down to two things – the skill vs. will.  By asking yourself if an employee is learning vs. doing the task (the skill), then if the employee is motivated vs. un-motivated (the will), you can more easily decipher if the employee needs to be told what to do directly, or asked for their own ideas and guided to resolution.

Employees that are learning (making lots of mistakes) need to be told, and employees that are doing (making fewer mistakes), need to be asked.  When we do not meet an employee where they are at developmentally on a task, we risk disengaging them due to micro-management and macro-management.  Their confidence wains, as mine did when I was asked and did not know, or when they do know and are told.

Once we know that an employee is capable of doing, and is demonstrating consistent success at a task, we can successfully coach them.

Coaching in a Nutshell

Aside from the Pivot Point Career Game Plan coaching framework for women in career transition, my favorite coaching framework is the GROW model.  The acronym highlights four key areas for effective coaching, providing guidance to a team member without having to give them the answers.  In it, G stands for Goal, R for Reality, O for Options, and W for Will.  It’s easy to create questions in your back pocket for them to self-discover their own goal, leading them to explore their current situation (reality) and what’s not happening now, brainstorm options for them to bridge the reality to their ideal goal state, then firm commitment on the plan to cement their will.

GROW relies on three key principles:

  1. Powerful Questions. Open-ended questions that start with “what” or “how” are key to getting people to think for themselves.  Consider the simple question – “what do you want?” – so powerful.
  2. Active Listening. Shut up and listen.  Pause for seven seconds after the question and you will be surprised what you hear.  Resist the urge to jump in with answers, park your assumptions, and be curious to learn from the team.  Playback what you heard them say using their exact words verbatim.  They will open up and tell you more.
  3. Self-Discovery. Promote this relentlessly.  People create barriers in their minds that they do not know what to do, or are so overwhelmed that they see no path to success.  They accept the current reality believing it is the best they can do.  Do not let them.  Challenge them to come up with their own solutions, encouraging them with, “I know your idea is better than mine,” and “what if you did know?”

In our PeopleFirst Leadership Certificate Program, I teach these tools and more.  To learn more about our program, check out this short overview video that goes into more detail on these tools and how to apply them to your business.

How will you ask versus tell?