3 Reasons to ‘Ask vs. Tell’ when Coaching Employees

Posted by Ross Duff

This is the second blog of our Workplace Culture series, a follow-up to a July 15 post, 5 Ways to Achieve Intentional Culture.

When establishing a highly effective performance delivery model at HGS, we always begin with designing, installing and nurturing a successful and fluid “business current.” The business current is the movement, or flow, within the HGS employee life cycle—from pre-boarding, through onboarding, including training and transition, and into and within production. A business’s level of performance delivery is directly related to the effectiveness of this current.

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A critical variable in creating a positive current includes individual employee performance development systems and practices. Organizations approach this many different ways, but at the heart of all employee developmental practices sits one of two different approaches. A workplace will have cultural tendencies toward either asking or telling, in relation to performance. What is your approach? Your answer may be a key reason for your performance: the good and the bad.

One of the most fundamental aspects of driving performance improvement is gaining buy-in or, in a word, commitment. Now consider this all-important statement: “You can’t tell a person their commitment.” When considering coaching or training techniques, the Socratic Method, stands the test of time (named, of course, after the classic Greek philosopher, Socrates). The Socratic Method promotes two-way communication with the goal to have an individual self-identify through progressively led discussion.

The key to unlocking a change in behavior is through some level of self-identification. Well-led, open-ended questions yield self-identification. In fact, you cannot coach, and gain commitment, without asking. And here’s why:

  1. Asking questions helps to identify specific reasons for performance gaps.
    When you answer for an employee, you do not come to adequately and specifically understand a performance gap. You have probably made some assumptions that may or may not be correct. In most cases, growth and change happen as a result of learning. This means activating an employee’s higher-order skills to engage, change mindset, and gain knowledge.
  2. Asking uncovers tools for success in future scenarios.
    If you tell an employee how to approach a project, that employee’s ability to deliver will be limited in the future. Set yourself up for success early. Asking open-ended questions engages the thought process that leads to discovering the root of a particular problem. As a result, employees will expend more effort in implementation/ execution. Pose questions that encourage people to come up with ideas they will be interested in pursuing. What’s more, when sourcing ideas from different people, you may even spot a great idea that had not occurred to you.
  3. Asking sets a collaborative tone.
    Performance coaching that focuses on asking questions sets a collaborative tone for the entire team. Whether you require employees to maintain their existing performance levels or a specific behavior needs to change, adopting a practice of asking during coaching will give you more intelligent and specific options to weigh and a clearer, collaborative path to intended outcomes. Interactive and cooperative team members who ask each other what they think together build a stronger, performance-oriented team. And asking questions brings an information exchange tone to coaching session, which encourages employees to volunteer their own, unique and valuable insights during the session.

Simply put; the answer to better coaching, better teamwork, and better performance lies in asking good questions. Good questions are often the difference between narrow commands and dynamic learning—and ultimately are the path toward, better customer care solutions for employees delivering excellence in today’s BPM environment. Try open-ended questions that often begin with “what,” “how,” “who,” “where,” “when “and “why”. Asking these types of questions opens an important dialogue- one that nurtures creative problem solving, accountability, and collaboration.

Do you follow the “ask v. tell” philosophy? If so, share your success. Contact me at