As long-distance leaders (or, heck, any kind of leader) we should ask a lot of questions. For many of us, the inability to see activity and output with our own eyes means we need to get that information in other ways. Leaders often talk about the “5 Ws “ of asking questions in order to make sure we’re getting what we need. But one of those words gets a lot less use than the others.
The 5 Ws are: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. If you think about your interaction with your team, those questions make perfect sense. Who is working on which tasks? When will it be done? Where are they when you pinged them and they didn’t answer? What are they doing? Many leaders stop there. After all, if people are at their desk, working on a clearly defined task, and it will be done on time, that’s usually enough information. Except it’s not. That pesky fifth W matters. A lot.
Why is a tricky question. It reveals answers to questions that are often hard to quantify. We know WHEN something is done. We can tell WHAT got done, and by whom. There are short, objective, definable answers to those questions. Why isn’t as simple or closed-ended. And it often uncovers a lot of assumptions or bad information it will take time to correct.
Here are some of the reasons asking “why” can be tricky, particularly in a remote team environment:
Priorities can vary from person to person.
If you understand why someone has made a task a priority over something else, it helps you coach, recognize, and reward those people. It’s not just enough to know what people are working on. Why helps you understand what isn’t getting done as well.
We’re in a hurry, and “why” isn’t usually on the checklist.
As we’ve said so many times, when we’re working across the ether by phone, chat or webcam, we tend to become very transactional. We want to complete our task, get the desired information and get back to work. We also don’t want to interfere with the hard work of other people. But asking questions is an important part of the leader’s job. As we said a moment ago, the other 4 Ws are easy to answer.
Why is time-consuming.
These are not yes-or-no questions. Be prepared to have a real discussion, which means active listening and additional questions. Why reveals motivation, assumptions, beliefs and other internal motivators that people often aren’t aware of. This isn’t an easy conversation to have when multi-tasking or between airport announcements.
It can put people on the defensive, which can limit discussion and damage relationships.
Why speaks to motives and decision making. If people feel that you are negatively judging their reasons for doing something, they may become defensive and put up barriers to understanding. Tone of voice is important here. Remember, you’re seeking information, not assigning blame. A different question might be “ how did you choose that action?” which screws up that whole “W” thing but can be even more effective.
As an effective Long-Distance Leader knows that the WHY conversation is critical. It should also be done as richly as possible, so often webcams add value to that conversation as you can get facial and other non-verbal cues that may not be evident on the telephone alone.
When you’re asking those crucial questions, don’t ignore the “why.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.