The Power of Questions in Building Engaged Teams

How might your management style change if you started using more empowering questions? One client told me the difference was significant. As he started to focus on listening and being attentive (rather than directing and talking), he felt like he was more approachable to his team, saw increased “buy in” and engagement, more accountability, and said “it really felt good”.  As managers, we still need to provide information and identify resources to support our teams, yet –with empowering questions—we may find our conversations will be more collaborative.


So, the next time you gather your team, try a few of my go-to empowering questions or try a few of your own.

  1. What is the next step? (or Where do you go from here?)
  2. What is another way of looking at this?
  3. What is preventing us from moving forward?
  4. What can we change to make this happen?
  5. What have we tried so far?
  6. Why is this important?
  7. How will you proceed if . . .?
  8. How do you suppose you can find more about it?
  9. How could we improve the situation?
  10. How important is it that . . . ?

Management lessons from home plate and Yogi Berra

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.–Yogi Berra.

As a manager, set expectations for your team to put them on the right path. Don’t forget to include goals, history and background information, a list of resources, steps in the approval process, deadlines, and who they may go to for help. After all, a goal without a plan is just a thought.

I often hear managers complain that they don’t have time to provide this direction. Instead, directions are given verbally or sent through a quick email and managers eventually follow up if a deadline is missed or they need something different than their staff provides. Is the time spent redirecting, clarifying, or having to put out a fire worth it? Do these back-end fixes support your staff and their morale?

Why not try a different approach by answering these questions as you deliver projects or even a simple request to complete a task?

  • What is the goal (e.g., increase revenue, analysis of options)?
  • Is there additional history or background information that would be useful (e.g., task originated from Board directive, “pet” project of the president)?
  • What resources would be helpful (e.g., related articles or memos on the topic, hyperlinks to e-files and websites)?
  • What are the steps in the approval process (e.g., manager reviews, finance approves)?
  • What is the deadline and are there interim check-in times (e.g., first draft due to me on October 15, feedback to you by October 20, deadline to CEO November 1)?
  • Who may they go to for more help (e.g., co-worker, outside consultant)?

Once you’ve provided this information, give your staff time to review it and set up time to meet and discuss it. Offer them the opportunity to ask questions and offer alternative pathways to completing the project.

And I will end this with another quote, this advice from my mom: All of the time and energy you invest now in providing direction, listening, and setting expectations will save you a lot of headaches later.

So, ask yourself, does your staff know where they are going? If not, what direction can you start providing today?

Related blog: Are you ready to create your own success?

Set a goal, but more importantly, make a plan.

A goal without a plan is just a thought. Even I have had big dreams and intentions that lingered because I feared the unknown, worried I might fail, or just didn’t take a step toward that goal. So what changed? I mentioned in my first blog that coaches have coaches, so I have used mine to help me achieve one of my goals.

I’ll illustrate with a smaller goal I had this summer: increase my social media presence for my business by setting up a Facebook business page to complement my website I had been thinking of developing one for months and to avoid doing one, I developed workarounds. I’d like to think my 301 friends on my personal Facebook account were thrilled to read that I posted my business blog in between my rants on the Red Sox needing bench strength or seeing that I was traveling to New Orleans, Jersey, or Chicago.

Why didn’t I set up my page? Through coaching, I realized I didn’t know how to set up a business page, had questions about who could view it, and didn’t understand whether there were costs to set it up. My coach and I discussed my ability to tag, post, message, one-hand text, and Tweet better than most teens (That’s called affirmation in coaching lingo.) Then we laid out a plan for the minimum first step I could take to set up my business page. “Hmmm,” I replied. “I could search Facebook business page on YouTube or find someone who has done this and ask them.”   Pretty simple—huh? Nope, we are not done yet. I had not committed to when I would do this. I gave myself two weeks and affirmed it was reasonable to do this within two weeks.

Did I succeed? Yes! I watched a series of YouTube videos by IBrand Your Business and learned how to set up my page and even set up a tab for Twitter using Woobox. I found that Coaching World magazine had a Leveraging Technology issue, so I Facebook messaged one of the authors Malti Bhojwani about using Facebook to promote her coaching business (Thanks for the help Malti!). Please check out and like my page Zwarick Executive Coaching page on Facebook and follow my Twitter site @ZwarickCoaching.

I’ve oversimplified the process, but I’ve worked with clients who have used coaching to develop a Business Plan to increase operational efficiency, land an internship in New York City at a major magazine, and improve their executive presence in internal meetings. So ask yourself . . .

When are you ready to set a plan?

How would it feel to take one small step to move forward?

What will it feel like when you achieve your goal?

Is that who you want to be?

Working and living just minutes from Baltimore City, I was drawn to this month’s coverage of the riots. On Monday, the Mondawmin Mall was looted, about 20 businesses and 144 cars were burned, more than 20 police officers were injured, and about 235 people were arrested. Baltimore quickly became characterized as a city filled with riots and thugs. What is striking is the way the city reacted. If one could ask the city “Is this who you want to be,” Baltimore would’ve responded quickly with a loud “No”.

Overnight, Baltimoreans were determined to shift others’ perceptions of the city. The mayor urged people to share positive images of Baltimore on social media under the hashtag #thisisbaltimore. More than 2,000 people cleaned up shattered glass and debris, clergy from different faiths joined together to minister and mediate between police and potential trouble, a Vietnam Veteran stood amidst protesting kids telling them to “get their butts” home, a mother was shown lecturing her teen son as she dragged him away from a crowd of rioters, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra played a free concert on the street where the riots had taken place, and a young boy was photographed sharing water with a police officer while a man on a bike was shown fist pumping law enforcement officers.

While the stories of protestors, curfews, and National Guard presence still existed, the city had significantly shown the world who they were: a city filled with people that care deeply for each other and their home.

If the city of Baltimore can shift perception, what can your organization do, what can you do? Be that team that focuses on possibilities rather than problems. Be the person that inspires rather than stifles creativity.

The first step to creating your “new who” is knowing who you want to be.

What habits are you ready to change to shed the “old you”?

What would you like to change to be more aligned with the “new who” you want to be?

What is one specific thing you can do tomorrow?

Are you ready to create your own success?

However you define success or failure, you can learn from either. I was reminded of this when reading Harvard Business Review’s issue on failure (available online: The importance of failure is we can choose to understand our failure, learn from it, and recover from it. Thinking of failure as a learning tool can help us change our philosophy of reprimanding people for failures to being someone who encourages our teams to be creative and innovative in their thinking. Successful leaders understand that some of the biggest successes may come from our biggest losses/failures.

With baseball season’s opening day this week, here are two great examples of the links between failure, success, and your mindset related to my favorite obsession: the Boston Red Sox. In 2012, the team strategy included expensive stars and what some called a flamboyant manager. The team had its worst record since 1965. The manager was openly confrontational with players. Players fought amongst themselves and aired their grievances with the manager’s decisions in the media. I remember a Sports Illustrated article entitled “The Epic Red Sox Fail” saying it took the Red Sox being that bad in 2012 to disown what they had become.


What did the Sox learn from their massive failure? Owners replaced the manager and shed their expensive players for talented players and a manager willing to and capable of building a team culture of solidarity (This was best shown by the players’ decision to grow beards for Beard Nation.), mutual respect, shared leadership, and accountability. And with that change came success: they team went from 65 wins and 93 losses in 2012 to 97 wins and 65 losses in 2013. This wasn’t the first time the team turned failure into success.


Almost a decade earlier in 2004, it was almost universally accepted that the Red Sox would never become World Champions after failing for 86 years. But a change in mindset was critical in the post-season. During the second round of the playoffs, the Sox were one game shy of losing the series. In a rallying cry to his teammates, first baseman Kevin Millar uttered the now famous phrase “Cowboy Up” as a challenge to his teammates to show more determination and get back on the horse they fell off of! While winning might be improbable, it was not impossible. They had 98 wins in the regular season. The Sox did win that and the next 7 games until claiming their World Series victory. Many attribute the wins to a team and a town (and this loyal fan) believing they could succeed.


What might change for you if you believed there’s only a thin line that separates success and failure?


What limiting beliefs are getting in your way?


What would your rallying speech be?


Are you ready to create your own success?



What’s the problem . . . really?

I’ve worked for physicians for more than 25 years . . . and if there’s one thing they’ve taught me, it’s that if you treat the symptoms of a problem, you’re not truly fixing it. That’s probably the only thing medicine and coaching has in common. A good coach will help you treat the CAUSE of the problem, not stick a Band Aid on the symptoms.

Take the example of a client who came to me to reduce stress with her former department. She recently transferred from one department to another and was still handling some of the projects from her old job. Her successor was making changes to programs that had been fairly successful for a decade. She felt happiness would come once she set up a plan to break away from the old department.

It would be easy for us to develop this plan: List projects with deadlines. Set a drop-dead transition date with her old boss. Craft a conversation with old boss, so boss she still has to work with doesn’t get ticked off. Done—right? No.

This plan did not get at the cause of her feelings. Her stress and unhappiness wasn’t about transitioning. Phrases that kept coming up as we spoke: I created it. Someone is in my old role. The cause was about something entirely different. Everything pointed to her sense of loss in leaving a job and projects she successfully created over a decade. She felt replaced.

When I made that observation, she agreed this was exactly what was bothering her. She was sad to watch someone else in her old role. Her new plan was to acknowledge this sense of “loss”, let it go, and focus on the positive choice she made to begin a new career. She loved the new job and was excited about it. She had spent years getting a masters degree to switch career paths.

She planned to meet with her former boss to set up an exit strategy, focusing on transitioning and helping because she loved the old department and respected the decade working together with her old team. She succeeded!

Are you willing to be honest with yourself and address the causes of your problems rather than sticking a Band Aid on the symptoms?

Are you willing to access more joy and abundance in your career?

What’s Stopping You?

Ever have one of those big projects that you’re told to fix and it stops you in your tracks? It’s not so much about the enormity (cause I’ve created departments from scratch) of the project, or the cost (cause I have argued successfully for billions of dollars), it’s more the new subject area. And you just don’t do anything about it at first. Then, driven by a need to do something, you begin what many call paralysis by analysis. You call a few people who know the subject area. Shoot, I once called an ex-employee I never met (Hey John, I am the new VP over here and you don’t know me, but I hear you worked on this project two years ago. John tells me he’ll think back, but it has been years since he worked on this.). You start going through old files (Picture me sitting with Board books dating back to 2007.) to read up on the topic area. You give the project a not-so-flattering nickname. (I called mine Formula 409 because I heard that cleaning product failed 408 times and clearly my inherited project had been sitting around for years being revised!) The end result: the work on that project isn’t anywhere closer to being done than it was the day you were assigned it.

So, what’s really going on? I wasn’t actually producing anything and this was draining the heck out of me. I hadn’t made one redline to the existing document other than changing the date on the cover.

Through coaching, I got to the root of the problem: me. It was about my inner need to get it right because I want to look smart. Hey, I have a PhD. I have been in upper management for 25 years. I couldn’t look like I didn’t know how to do this project.

Here’s the killer question my coach asked that got me back on track: If I walked into the office on day one and was going to create this project plan, what would step 1 look like? Killer follow-up question: What’s stopping me from moving forward with Step1?

Whoa, this is about trusting my instincts on how to achieve the project goal. I got past my “need to be right, need to be smart” issues. I had to get out of my own way. While I hadn’t developed one on this topic, I had created 100s of successful project plans. I didn’t have to fix the prior plan. I had to scrap it.

If I walked in to this project on day 1, I knew what I would do based on my experience. I got this! I need data . . . no one has asked our consumers what they need and how much they are willing to pay for it. A gap analysis! And why are we talking about staffing cuts when we don’t even know what products we need and what staffing is needed to support them? I totally got this! And in answer to killer question 2: no one is stopping me from developing my own plan. I assumed I had to fix the old one. I used my coach to rehearse the presentation of my (emphasis on MY) plan and not that patched up old plan. I spoke from a place of experience using my gut and nailed that presentation.

So frankly, you have to ask yourself three questions:

What’s holding you back from finding out the real causes of issues at work?

How would it feel if you could get rid of those issues and reach your goals in a way that is less draining?

What would it look like to create your own plan?