Every encounter with someone on your team offers a chance to create value, promote learning and growth, and encourage development. Or not.

A large part of the outcome from your daily encounters with team members depends upon your careful use of questioning. Are you an interrogator or an explorer? Depending upon your style, the outcomes are very different.

A Confession—I was an Interrogator

I love to learn how people think. Do they see the big picture? Are they good critical thinkers? Do they consider different frames and approaches as they problem-solve? After all, I always wanted the best, brightest, and fastest on my teams.

I was in constant judging mode and had an interrogation style that would make a big-city district attorney proud. If the verdict came back less than favorable during a couple of encounters, it was time to consider a trade.

OK, there was admittedly a jerkish phase to my management development. I turned it around when it finally dawned on me that my job was to help individuals develop those critical thinking and solution development skills. The transition was bumpy, but the results priceless as individuals and groups ultimately became comfortable in discovery mode instead of worrying about an invasive exam from their manager.

In many environments, I observe, the pressure for results drives a similar interrogatory style of questioning from top managers. (Related: Dear Corporate: Why We Hate Your Business Reviews.) Newsflash, it’s not going to work. Even if the culture is slow to change, YOU can change your approach. Here’s how:

Three Tools to Help You Pivot to Explorer Mode

1. Start Listening Harder

It’s common for interrogator managers to rapid-fire questions at team members, and when the answers are halting or non-existent, to increase the intensity and volume of the questions. If you are motivated to shift your style, the first behavior to strengthen is your commitment to listening. I want you to become a fierce listener. And by the way, this is hard work.

I used a daily morning ritual to help remind me of my commitment to creating value at every encounter in the upcoming day. I identified listening as a critical goal for my day, and I created a mind-hack where I reminded myself at each contact that I needed to listen first and then ask questions that promoted exploration, not an interrogation.

It took time for me to cultivate an approach that others felt was authentic and empathetic. It helped that I shared what I was trying to do with my team members and asked them to call me on it if I regressed to prosecuting attorney mode.

Something funny happened along the way. Individuals emulated my improving listening behaviors, and as a group, we all did a better job tuning in to each other.

2. Rethink Team Values

One of my exercises in reforming my managerial approach was to work through a team values exercise. During this process, we worked together to hash through what was important to all of us in our working environment. The team settled on behaviors that reinforced mutual respect, listening, coaching, problem-solving, and accountability for actions.

The problem-solving value allowed us to explore what it meant to support each other for identifying creative and pragmatic solutions to various situations. The accountability and coaching values emphasized our need to help individuals uncover ideas, not to give them answers. Effectively, the team zeroed in on how they wanted me to support them, and I was able to build-in the need for them to do the heavy lifting of critical thinking.

Defining the values as a team and then working together to bring them to life in daily behaviors helped me dramatically alter my approach to managing. The prosecuting attorney style of managing and questioning was no longer an option.

3. Use Questions to Promote Thinking Not to Judge It

Given the values foundation above and my daily renewal to succeed with every encounter, it was essential for me to start asking different questions in different ways. Doing this successfully is harder than it sounds—requiring a fundamental rewiring of my managerial thinking and actions.

I developed a listing of questions that I called upon over and over again. A few of the more frequently used questions included:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • How can I help you here?
  • What do you think your options are for this situation?
  • How have other teams/firms/ solved this type of problem?
  • Have you considered framing this as an opportunity? How might you approach it now?

And, my set of time-travel questions:

  • How do you want to see this unfold in the future?
  • What will your future-self tell your present-self about how to handle these types of situations?

Never Perfect, But Better

I never gave up my search to understand the critical thinking skills of my team members, nor do I advocate you give this up. What’s essential is shifting from interrogator to explorer, helping individuals open their minds to new ways of viewing situations and thinking through approaches.

As I adopted an explorer style, it was wonderful to see some individuals emerge and grow. Those who were uninterested in pushing themselves to think critically and differently even after ample encouragement effectively fell short of our values and were moved off the team.

Overall, we were much stronger for this approach, and I was finally comfortable in my skin with the work of guiding and developing others.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

As a manager, you have an incredible ability to create value with and through others. The sooner you recognize it’s not about you being the smartest person in the room, but rather the one developing other smart people, the faster you will move to high-performance.

Art's Signature