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How to Engage Your Employees in Performance Improvement

Most of us do not like being told what we are doing wrong and what we need to do to improve. While our intention as leaders is to be helpful when providing feedback, we sometimes come across as belittling or insulting. If delivering feedback feels like a blow to your employee’s contributions, the result will likely be defensiveness because, like humans, they are trying to protect themselves from negative feedback. This is what makes engaging employees in their performance improvement so challenging. But, it doesn’t have to be.

The key is in the way you approach these conversations. Rather than giving direct feedback, try setting goals and expectations and engaging your employees by asking questions that encourage them to develop their own solutions. This will empower your employees to take ownership of their actions and the results of those actions and give them more self-pride when they succeed.

As leaders, we should be spending much more time asking questions when it comes to improvement so we can better engage our employees and create a culture of growth. But this takes skill because if it is done incorrectly, such as asking questions to lead an employee to a specific answer, it will result in frustration and potentially a lack of trust. If you already know the answer, you’ll want to come out and say it. Still, the goal of engaging employees to improve their performance is through inquisitive processes, allowing the employee to come to their own conclusions. This does not mean you need to be flexible about the outcome or expectation itself, but you need to be flexible about how the employee reaches that outcome. This engages the employee, builds a sense of commitment, and makes managing employees easier.

Before you dive into the inquisitive process, you want to make sure that the language you use to communicate the desired outcome is clear, descriptive, and actionable. It is also good to come prepared with open and thoughtful questions that give you more information about your employee’s work, thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

Here are a few tips to help you prepare:

  • Ask one question at a time, and make sure you leave room for your employee to think about the answer. Do not try to rush or get everything addressed at once.

  • Phrase each question in simple, quickly understood words and terms that don’t intimidate your conversation partner.

  • Keep your questions short and to the point. Take time to consider how you can simplify by breaking your questions into two or more questions.

  • Frame questions in a positive light. Rather than asking about avoiding negative outcomes, ask about gaining improved outcomes. It is also helpful to find enthusiasm about the employee’s capability to achieve a better result.

  • Use open questions to get more information.

  • Make sure you seek clarity when answers seem incomplete by gently probing for more information.

What type of questions should you be asking? Here are three types of questions that will help you engage your employees in performance improvement:

Open-Ended Questions

These are broader questions that tend to be more generalized and compel your employee to provide more than just a “yes” or “no” answer. These questions allow the employee to determine how much information to give. Here are some examples:

  • How do you feel you did in achieving <desired outcome>?

  • Can you tell me about the challenges you faced?

  • How can I better help you achieve these outcomes?

  • What would you like to see once the result is achieved?

  • Describe how you think the project developed?

  • What would you do if you were me?

  • What do you think is working for you?

  • What do you think is not working for you?

  • Where do you see this heading?

  • How would you do the work?

  • What steps would you suggest?

  • Help me understand?

  • Explain what you mean by?

  • Can you tell me more about?

Hypothetical Open Questions

These questions allow your employee to consider possible future scenarios, which may help them see a new or different perspective. Here are some examples:

  • Suppose you had to fill my role at the next board meeting. How would you handle it?

  • Let’s say we purchase this new system. In what ways do you see this affecting your work?

  • What would you like to see happen if we can’t improve the system?

Direct or Specific Questions

Short, pointed questions that often result in a yes or no. These are valuable when you’re having difficulty following or need clarity because they are easier to answer. Here are some examples of direct questions and ways you could turn a direct question into an open-ended question to engage further:

  • “Do you like the idea of moving forward with this decision?” vs. “Do you have any other ideas that can help you move forward?”

  • “Can someone help you with this project?” vs. “Who can help you on this project?”

  • “Does it take more time to finish than expected?” vs. “How much more time will it take to finish this project?”

It is important to understand the difference between a direct question and a closed question. A direct question gives you more information and allows for more conversation. A closed question does not leave room for a richer conversation and does not gather more information. Here are some examples of closed questions:

  • Are you upset? vs. How does this make you feel?

  • Is this appraisal fair? vs. What are your thoughts about this appraisal?

  • Do you have time? vs. When would you have time?

One of the most powerful things you can do as a leader is engage with your employees by offering them the freedom to explore their performance in a non-judgmental way by asking questions and being flexible about the way employees decide to deliver the desired outcome.


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