The Powerful Questions Bosses Should Ask Their Employees

September 4, 2017

The most effective managers know how to coach their employees. And that starts with asking powerful questions.

A measure of a great boss is not just how their team performs, but how their team develops. A great boss boosts the skillsets of their employees, which lifts the organization to new heights.

How does that happen?

Coaching. Great managers coach their employees, rather than telling them what to do. This leads to employees figuring out problems themselves, which improves them at a far more rapid pace than is otherwise possible.

Coaching is not instinctual though – in fact, coaching goes against our natural instinct of solving a problem ourselves. Hence, the fundamentals of coaching need to be learned.

All the fundamentals of coaching won’t be taught in this article, you should probably watch LinkedIn Learning Instructor Lisa Gates’ full course, Coaching and Developing Employees, for that. But, as any great coach already knows, great coaching starts with developing a key competency: asking great questions.

So what are the powerful questions you, as a manager, should ask your employees? There are a few aspects to asking great coaching questions, according to Gates:

  • First and most obviously, the manager needs to ask questions, instead of making judgment statements or offering criticism. For example, if an employee misses a deadline, the wrong approach is to lecture them. Instead, to properly coach you need to hold the employee accountable through questions: what prevented you from missing the deadline? How could you avoid that in the future?
  • The questions themselves need to be open-ended. Asking a person a yes or no question rarely leads to development. You wouldn’t ask an employee if they like working with a colleague, you’ll likely get a yes. Instead, ask how are things working with a colleague, which encourages thoughtfulness and reflection.
  • Finally, one question often isn’t enough. If you ask someone what prevented them from hitting a deadline and they say, “I didn’t manage my time effectively”, don’t stop there. Ask more questions – how exactly did you mismanage my time? What could you do differently next time to manage your time better? These follow-up questions are critical to keeping employees accountable and ensure they get to the root of the problem.

Some examples of powerful questions bosses should ask their employees

Okay, those are the basic fundamentals of the first part to effective coaching: asking powerful questions. But what are some examples of powerful questions that bosses should ask their employees?

In her course, Gates provided an entire list of powerful questions to ask. Here are a few situation-based examples:

  • Examples of good goal-based questions: What is it you’d like to focus on? What would you like to happen that is not happening now? What are all the things that would need to be done to achieve the goal?
  • Examples of assessment questions that help you better understand a situation: When and how often does this happen? What is that person’s perception of the situation? What have you tried so far?
  • Examples of questions that encourage an employee to brainstorm a solution: What possibilities for action do you see? What are the benefits and pitfalls of these options? Who might be able to help?
  • Examples of questions that identify action items: What are your next steps? Precisely when will you take them? What might get in the way?

Final thought

Asking great questions is an essential skill for effective coaching. If you don’t ask powerful questions that cause an employee to think through an answer and come up with a solution, you won’t develop an employee.

But asking great questions is hardly the only skill a coach needs to master. You also need to know how to listen effectively, how to be sympathetic without accepting excuses and how to give feedback, etc.

The payoff to mastering these skills is huge. A great coach doesn’t just engage their employees in ways traditional management cannot. They also develop them far faster than a traditional management can.

One last thought: recently, we asked 500 learning and development pros at organizations through North America the skill they most want their managers to learn. Their answer?


The reasons were for exactly the ones we outlined here. So, if you truly want to be an elite manager, it starts with learning the fundamentals of coaching.

Want to learn how to effectively coach employees? Watch Gates’ course, Coaching and Developing Employees.  

Have you already learned the basic fundamentals of coaching? Than check out Gates more advanced course, Coaching for Results.