“You’ve had three months to do this project. I gave you extensive directions, asked you if you needed help on four separate occasions, and checked in with you on a weekly basis. What do you mean we’re not going to be ready for the event on Saturday?!?”
That’s what I wanted to say to my employee who approached me explaining that she didn’t, in fact, have things ready for Saturday’s event. Instead, I paused for a beat, smiled, and said:
“Thank you again for agreeing to lead the charge on this—I know how busy you are! It sounds like we have a lot of ground to cover before the event on Saturday. What ideas do you have for making up that ground? I know you’ll be able to make this a success, which is why I chose you for this role in the first place.”
I’m the editor-in-chief of an online magazine. We have a staff of 70 and an intense publishing schedule, so it’s a huge role—and I delegate a lot. Unfortunately, those I delegate to aren’t always as invested as I am.
A couple of months ago, I would have used the first approach on my slacking team member. However, I quickly found that getting angry—although satisfying—didn’t motivate my staff. Instead, they would get defensive and resentful.
I had to change my tactics. That’s when I discovered the magical question: What ideas do you have for… (finishing this on time, placating the customer, responding to the client, doing things better in the future, whatever else you think is required to fix the thing you messed up)?
This question is effective for multiple reasons:
- It forces the person you’re asking to acknowledge he or she has created a problem.
- It gives him or her an instant way to alleviate that problem.
- It asks him or her to think of more than one solution.
- It makes you seem understanding and sympathetic.
- It allows the person to be less defensive, since you’re not being accusatory or suggesting you’ve lost faith in him or her.
When I asked this question to the woman organizing Saturday’s event, she responded:
“I’m busy, but that’s no excuse! So is everyone else on our staff! I know I let you down, but I’m going to focus all my energy into making this event happen. First, I’ll call every caterer in the area to see who’s still available. Maybe we can offer them free publicity so they’ll ignore how last-minute it is? Also, I was thinking…”
There’s no way I would’ve gotten a reply this helpful if I had listened to the urge to yell at her.
Even if you’re not in a position of power, you can still use this principle—just slightly alter the question. Say you’re the one who’s messed up. After owning your mistake and apologizing, ask your supervisor, “What would you do in my situation?”
Once again, it’s effective in a variety of ways:
- Your boss is now looking at things from your side, making him or her more empathetic.
- You get at least one potential solution.
- You show you’re serious and proactive about fixing your mistakes.
- You’re flattering your boss by asking for his or her opinion and help.
When I realized I’d made a promise to a client I couldn’t keep, I immediately went to my supervisor, explained what had happened, and said, “I’d love your insight into how to handle this. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?” She thought for a bit, then gave me a three-part plan for making it up to the customer.
This technique is especially useful when you have no idea how to resolve a conflict—and don’t want to admit your cluelessness.
As both a leader and an employee, I used to think I needed to have all the answers. Now I’ve found I just need one question. Problem solved.