Was That a Suggestion in the Form of a Question?

“Have you thought about doing it this way?” we might say to one of the people we manage. But what we really mean is: “I think you should do it this way.”

The “veiled suggestion.” We’ve all been guilty of it as leaders at some point in our careers — telling a direct report how to do something indirectly by posing it as a question.

No harm if this happens once in a while — but if posing suggestions in the guise of questions is an ongoing behavior a leader engages in with direct reports, something needs to change. Veiled suggestions do not get the best results from direct reports, and can contribute to performance problems.

Here’s an Example

Let’s say you’re a VP managing a team of directors, and a couple of them are new to their roles. And let’s say you’ve got your job nailed. You know what needs to be done. In fact, you could do the work of some of your newer directs in half the time that they could. You’re practicing patience as they grow in their roles, holding back the urge to simply tell people what to do.

But there’s work that needs to get done and you’re on a schedule. You’re torn between telling people what to do and asking the good questions that tap into their creative thinking and thus growth in their jobs.

You’ve learned that asking questions is the best way to get good ideas out on the table. So that’s what you do. But you might be asking the wrong question. In fact, you might be tossing out your suggestion in the form of a question. “Have you thought about doing it this way?” is one of those suggestions posed as a question. Another is, “What do you think about doing it this way?”

What to Do Instead

Here’s what leaders can do instead: Just directly make a suggestion. And here’s why: When you put your suggestion into question form it can have the impact of causing people to feel inadequate because they didn’t think of it first. Another message it can send is that you’re not really wanting their input or ideas. This can lead to defensive behaviors on their part, or to a feeling that you don’t trust them.

There’s a Right Time and a Wrong Time for Making Suggestions

The right time for offering suggestions is when someone is new to the assignment or to the role, and giving directions is necessary for success. Suggestions are most useful when accompanied by the reasons behind them. This context setting allows the other to understand the bigger picture.

Example:

  • “The best way to approach this problem is to talk to Jim, and here’s why. He’s done this before and he can guide you through it.” Once the suggestion is made, you can then ask your direct what their thinking is around implementing it.

But there is a wrong time to make suggestions, even if you’re being direct about it. As a person gains experience and develops in their position, leaders get better results by drawing out their direct reports’ ideas. And the way to do that is — you guessed it — by using questions. Real questions, not veiled suggestions.

Examples:

  • “What are your thoughts about this?”
  • “How would you approach this?”

Even when you have what you believe is the right approach, sourcing others’ ideas from the start serves them in their development process. Asking others what they think begins to put the responsibility for the undertaking with them, and not solely with you. And that’s exactly where it needs to be.

Question: Do you have any examples of ‘veiled suggestions’? Or do you have a tip to share? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com/Thinglass

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