For leaders, sometimes the best answer is a question

Guest Post by Joni S. Naugle

If you’ve been in a management position, I’m sure you can relate to this scenario. You are at your desk working on a project and facing a tight deadline. You really should close your door to prevent interruptions. However, your “open door” approach with your team keeps you from pushing it closed.

Then it happens. Someone on your team appears at your door and says “Do you have a minute, I have a question?”

In a fleeting second, you have conflicting thoughts. You don’t want to stop your train of thought, yet you have an obligation to help. There is only one option. Answer the question quickly so you can both get back to work.

The next time this scenario plays out for you, try a different strategy. Instead of answering the question, ask a question. A valuable leadership principle I learned is “A well-asked question trumps a great answer every time.”

Unfortunately, we don’t learn this principle in any classroom or management training program. In fact, most managers have never heard it’s more valuable to ask the right questions than have the right answers. As we get promoted, we convince ourselves that our promotions mean we are expected to have all the answers. When those who work for us come with a question, we believe we fail if we don’t provide an answer. So we pride ourselves in giving prompt and solid responses.

While this approach may appear logical and efficient, it’s not the best method for the long-term benefit of the company and the employee. By just providing answers, we aren’t engaging employees in their work. A strong supervisor or manager understands one of their key roles is helping team members grow and develop so they can make their best contributions to the organization. To paraphrase a well-known adage: You don’t want to feed your team fish; you want to teach them to fish. Answering their questions and sending them on their way is feeding, not teaching.

A great first response to any question from a member of your team is “What do you recommend?” As a manager, you want to understand an employee’s thought process, encourage sound critical thinking, and guide misdirected thinking. If you answer questions and send them on their way, you are missing huge coaching opportunities.

Several other good questions to use are:

  • What do you see as the biggest risk with this situation?
  • How will the outcome affect customer service?
  • What are all the options we can consider and how should we compare the positives and negatives of each option?

Keep asking questions until they arrive at the best answer on their own, and then acknowledge their thought process.

When employees come to you for answers, your guidance and encouragement provide the real value – for you, the employee and the organization. Not only will employees’ confidence levels improve, they will feel their contributions are more valued, which results in increased job satisfaction. While it seems counterintuitive, not providing the answers actually is more helpful and makes you a better leader, mentor and change agent.

This approach will take more time initially. Eventually, though, you will find that employees will not have the need to stop by your office and ask as many questions. That creates a different situation and is a topic for another day.

So the next time someone appears in your doorway to ask a question, suppress the urge to quickly answer it and send them on their way. Ask a question, because a well-asked question trumps a great answer every time.

Joni S. Naugle


Joni S. Naugle is the founder and president of Naugle Associates, LLC, Reading, PA where she works with clients on leadership, strategy and company culture and leads executive peer advisory groups through an alliance with Vistage International. She writes a monthly column for the Reading Eagle’s Business Weekly. You can contact Joni at


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