Open dialogue gets answers

Open dialogue gets answers

Many first-time managers feel overwhelmed as to what skills they should prioritise and implement from the outset


A technical skillset is different to that of a manager

A technical skillset is different to that of a manager


In many companies and organisations, new managers are selected as a result of their success in technical and operational roles. This seems to be a sensible approach, as the manager needs to understand the challenges facing the people who work directly under him or her.

At the same time, it’s fundamentally flawed. The skill set required to excel in a technical/operational role is different than the skill set required for success as a manager.

This paradox rears its head in virtually every business and organisation. As an executive coach, I work with clients from diverse industries who are transitioning into management roles. To win the trust of the people who must report to them and corporate leaders, these new managers and others like them need to swiftly adopt a repertoire of leadership behaviours.

Many first-time managers feel overwhelmed as to what skills they should prioritise and implement from the outset.

When coaching such clients, I try to help them stay calm and grounded by focusing on making one immediate and powerful change: ask open-ended questions and avoid making directive statements.

This strategy is simple, straightforward and easy to remember.

How and why does this strategy work? The primary consideration here is the nature of an open-ended question, which prompts the respondent to think carefully and to reveal what’s on his or her mind.

Unlike closed-ended questions (which evoke a “yes” or “no” response), open-ended questions promote dialogue and interpersonal engagement. When asked in a calm, neutral manner (without any hint about what the “right” answer should be), open-ended questions help the manager to gather essential information from staff about the challenges and opportunities they face.

Open-ended questions promote confidence and trust in the relationship. Staff receive an implicit message that his or her thoughts are valued and respected. The relationship between manager and the people who report to him or her deepens, which enhances productivity and quality of life in the workplace.

Here’s an example of an open-ended question a manager might ask: “When will you be ready to master that new technical skill the CEO wants us to develop?”


The reply will yield information about the employee’s level of motivation and adaptability, as well as what’s realistic in the current work environment.

A directive statement like “I need you to master that skill by the end of the month” is more likely to cause the employee to experience fear, frustration, resentment, passive aggression and failure to achieve the unilaterally imposed benchmark.

Open-ended questions also help to create developmental opportunities for employees.

Many new managers are told to “delegate” operational tasks so that they can become more “strategic,” but this advice is frequently confusing and unrealistic because staff aren’t yet capable of performing all the operations that the manager had mastered.

Instead of “delegating”, I encourage new managers to ask open-ended questions that will empower staff to develop the technical skills that they need.

Examples of this kind of question might be, “Who can help and support you in learning how to become proficient at this essential task?” or “How can I support you in figuring out how to do this on your own?” – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015 Dr David Brendel is a certified executive coach, career consultant, and philosophical counsellor based in Boston.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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