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Performance Improvement: Asking the Right Questions

performance improvement questions
Performance improvement practitioners help their organizations more through the questions they ask than through the answers they provide. This does not necessarily mean that you don’t ever have useful answers, but rather that there is much value in the collaborative inquiry you engage stakeholders in to help them leverage their understanding of their situation and organizational culture. Through this process, you also gain their trust and a shared understanding of the important organizational issues. When you help them expand their view of the options they have, they are more likely to recognize the way forward for themselves, with an increased motivation and trust to move in that direction. 

Asking the right questions is integral to strategic alignment—to collecting useful evidence about what is working well, what is not working well, why, what the priorities are, and how they should be addressed. Your choice of questions will lead you in a specific direction, and if you limit the scope of the questions, you will be limited by the information you acquire. An example of limiting your scope is to focus on isolated elements of individual performance, rather than focusing on the organizational system. 

Of course, the art of questioning has been around for thousands of years. The philosopher Socrates developed the Socratic Method, which is a form of cooperative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering the right questions to stimulate critical thinking, and to draw out assumptions and ideas. Socrates is known as one of the great educators in history, and he taught by asking questions with the purpose of challenging accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that moved people toward a valuable and ultimate goal. 

There are various lines of Socratic style questions that can help us have substantive conversations with our clients and generate shared conclusions. These questions are meant to challenge what people think they know from a collaborative perspective. 

As with any tool, they can be used well or used poorly. They should be asked from a place of “help me understand” rather than “I don’t believe you,” so appropriate delivery, wording, and pacing should be considered, especially when asking “why” questions. Table 1-1 provides six different types of questioning—conceptual clarification questions; probing assumptions; probing rationale, reasons, and evidence; probing viewpoints and perspectives; and probing implications and consequences—as well as their purpose and examples of each. 

Figure 1-1, Partner for Performance


Keep the following guidelines in mind as you consider what questions must be asked: 

Directness. Consider how straightforward you want to be about your questions. Keep in mind who you are asking and what the appropriate way to ask the question is. 

Open versus closed. Consider what you want to know. Asking closed yes or no questions will give you limited information. Asking open-ended questions will allow the respondent to expand, explain, and even shape subsequent questions. While closed-ended questions can be helpful in confirming facts, they should be used sparingly, as they typically constrain you to narrow information. 

Approach and tactics. The value is not just in what questions you ask, but how you ask the questions. Over time, you want to develop your ability to combine different types of questions that complement each other well. Consider starting with probing questions that help you gather facts and perceptions (mainly descriptive). Then continue with probing questions that help you analyze the underlying assumptions, logics, and evidence. Finish with questions that help you begin to think about the future and alternatives. 

Questions to avoid. While you want to use a range of questions to broaden your understanding of the issues, there are some questions that you want to steer clear of. Avoid leading questions, which plant a seed in the respondent. You also want to avoid asking multiple questions at once, because the respondent will end up tackling the one he wants to answer, while ignoring the others. Finally, you also want to minimize direct “why” questions. This takes some care, as “why” is a critical question to understand contributing factors and root causes. But you also need to be thoughtful about how you ask these questions to avoid appearing critical or combative. Other ways of asking “why” questions include “tell me more about” or “what do you think are the reasons for. . . ?” 

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Partner for Performance (ATD Press, 2017). This book will help learn how to generate, share, and use performance data that support decision making and action so you can help your organization avoid failed training initiatives that waste effort, time, and money.



About the Author
Ingrid Guerra-López, PhD, is an internationally recognized performance improvement expert and bestselling author. She is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Needs Assessment and Evaluation, a firm that provides consulting, coaching, and training and development services focused on strategic measurement, management, and alignment of learning and performance improvement programs. Ingrid is also a professor at Wayne State University, where she conducts research and teaches graduate courses focused on performance measurement, management, and strategic alignment. She recently completed a term as director on the board of the International Society for Performance Improvement, and completed her tenure as editor-in-chief of Performance Improvement Quarterly.

Ingrid has authored seven books, including Needs Assessment for Organizational Success and Performance Evaluation: Proven Approaches to Improving Programs and Organizations. She has also authored approximately 100 articles and facilitated hundreds of international and national presentations and workshops on topics related to performance assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and strategic alignment. Her clients include international development agencies, government, education, military, healthcare, and corporate organizations. Ingrid has coached and mentored hundreds of graduate students, executives, managers, and other professionals, disseminating evidenced-based performance improvement practices internationally in more than 30 countries.
About the Author
Karen Hicks, PhD, has more than 15 years’ experience helping organizations build measurement and evaluation and talent development capabilities. She works to demonstrate the value of talent development through strategic alignment, assessment, and improvement.
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