Your questions can have a better impact.

As for me, I'm noticing my language and doing my own experiment.

In his recently-published book, Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith makes the case that active questions can have a surprisingly strong impact on employee engagement - and on our own efforts to change for the better.

Marshall credits his daughter, Kelly, who has a Ph.D. from Yale in behavioral marketing and teaches at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, with teaching him about this topic. "The standard practice in almost all organizational surveys on the subject [of employee engagement] is to rely on what Kelly calls passive questions -- questions that describe a static condition. "Do you have clear goals?" is an example. It's passive because it can cause people to think of what is being done to them rather than what they are doing for themselves."

He goes on to explain that when someone is asked "Do you have clear goals?" and they don't, they tend to blame external factors such as, "My manager can't make up his mind" or "The company changes strategy every month." 

Marshall makes the point that passive questions "can give people the unearned permission to pass the buck to anyone and anything but themselves."

Kelly and Marshall decided to perform a study to see what would happen by asking active questions. They had three groups. The first group was a control group that received no training and was asked "before and after" questions on happiness, meaning, building positive relationships, and engagement. The second group attended a two-hour training session about "engaging yourself" at work and home. This training was followed up every day (for ten working days) with passive questions:

1. How happy were you today?
2. How meaningful was your day?
3. How positive were your relationships with people?
4. How engaged were you?

The third group went to the same two-hour training session. Their training was followed up with active questions:

1. Did you do your best to be happy?
2. Did you do your best to find meaning?
3. Did you do your best to build positive relationships with people?
4. Did you do your best to be fully engaged?"

 At the end of the two weeks, participants rated themselves on increases in the four areas. The control group didn't change, the passive question group reported improvement, and the active question group doubled the level of improvement.

Why such an impact? Marshall writes, "Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up. In doing so they sharpen our sense of what we can actually change. We gain a sense of control and responsibility instead of victimhood."

Marshall goes on to promote active daily self-questioning as a way to make a change in ourselves. He suggests picking areas which are important in our lives and that can help us become who we want to be. By inserting "Did I do my best to..." in front of our daily reflection, we add personal responsibility into our answers and will be less likely to blame things, people and situations outside ourselves.

I recommend further reading of Triggers for anyone wanting to make a change, because the subtitle promises, "Creating behavior that lasts - becoming the person you want to be. "

As for me, I'm noticing my language and doing my own experiment. I'm trying to shift from asking my kids, "Did you learn anything at school today?" to more active questions like "What did you do to learn something at school today?" and "How were you a good friend to someone today?" 

Give Goldsmith's book a read and let me know what you think. And if you'd like to come at it from Chris' angle and explore more on creating ownership by asking questions that help others struggle and grow, check out the Ripple Practice 3.5, "Help Them Figure Out How to Fish."

Diana is the chief operations officer and project manager for Trebuchet Group.

Diana is the chief operations officer and project manager for Trebuchet Group.

May your self questions promote healthy, meaningful growth for you! 

Main photo courtesy of Death to the Stock Photo.

For a discussion on this same topic, Diana will be facilitating the Oct 2015 Brown Bag Event around Goldsmith's book and the question: "Do you impact employee engagement by how you ask questions?"