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Three Keys to Asking Good Questions to Improve the Lab

Powerful questions to help staff think differently about how to solve problems

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Lab managers need to understand what is happening in the lab and how staff are addressing the challenges they face. One effective way to both gain information about lab activities and share experience to help lab staff succeed is to ask questions.

Asking questions is a powerful tool for lab managers to interact with staff. People tend to respond to the questions that managers ask because it demonstrates what is important to that manager. Learning to ask effective questions is an important leadership development opportunity. Here are three ways that lab managers can improve their questioning skills.

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#1 – Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions require more than one syllable to answer. They give the person room to think about the situation and provide more depth and information in their response. Open-ended questions provide the opportunity to learn about the person and the situation. They also provide opportunities for follow-up questions to further explore details or to clarify information. Some examples of powerful open-ended questions are: 

  • What is challenging about this project?
  • What might help this project be more successful?
  • How can I help?

#2 – Dumb questions

In the book Wisdom of the Crowd, James Surowiecki paints the picture of the best way to outperform a team of experts is to add an “idiot” to your expert team. The idiot asks dumb questions that cause the experts to think differently about the problem. Lab Manager reader Terry Grim wrote to us to explain how asking dumb questions encouraged a teammate to think differently about customer requests. Terry says, “I would sometimes ask the chemist who designed the route what I came to call my ‘Stupid Question of the Week.’ He was very tolerant, as some of my suggestions violated basic principles of organic chemistry, but just often enough, my suggestions would make sense or it would prompt him to think of something else that made sense, and a much simpler/cheaper route could be proposed.” Lab managers who can be humble and vulnerable enough to ask dumb questions can help staff solve some of the big challenges in the lab.

#3 – Listen

The key benefit of asking powerful questions is listening to the responses and using that opportunity to probe deeper, or to share experience and knowledge to help address the problem. It is vital to listen to understand and listen to learn. Lab managers need to develop the discipline to actively listen to the whole message before judging, disagreeing, or interrupting. Provide lab staff the space to speak their full message. There will be plenty of time to discuss the content of the answer when they finish. Staff will quickly determine who is only listening to respond and will shorten responses by trying to find the right answers.

Thank you to Terry Grim for contributing to this Manager Minute. We appreciate your interest in sharing this insight with other lab managers.