Why newsroom managers would benefit from asking more questions

Ask great reporters to name their most powerful tool, and you just might hear this:

The question.

Not just any question, but one that is simple, open-ended and all but requires the subject to abandon the relative safety of a “yes” or “no.” The great question does not just confirm what the reporter knows; it reveals something new. It explains something complex. It leaves all who read or hear its answer smarter.

So why, knowing the power of the question, do so many of us who become newsroom managers forget to include it in our toolbox? Instead of relying upon great questions to help us lead our staffs, we think something else is expected of us:

Answers.

I did. No sooner had I accepted my first assistant editor’s title, the desk and the raise (yes, in the old days we got raises with promotions) and promptly became an “Answer Man.” Overnight I was capable of boldly producing opinions upon request — and equally good at delivering them to staffers who didn’t yet appreciate their value enough to ask.

And we wonder why no one participates in meetings.

I started thinking about this phenomenon again a few weeks ago while watching (here goes my cred, such as it was) the Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible,” which each week features a new attempt by celebrity chef Robert Irvine to save a failing restaurant in just 48 hours.

Halfway through this particular episode, the overbearing manager of the week’s floundering restaurant reflected upon what she had been doing wrong.

“I was decisive,” she said. “But I wasn’t effective.”

Bullseye. Many of us who are given the opportunity to manage other people fixate on our need to be decisive. Problem is, we forget about the ingredients that contribute to making good decisions — ingredients like information, experience and other people.

No matter how large your staff or responsibility, I’m guessing that in the weeks ahead, you will make hundreds of decisions on everything from strategy to story assignments to ethical dilemmas. What if you had to sign an agreement that required you, before making each decision, to ask at least one good question?

Sounds easy. In this fast-pace time of continuous change, it’s not.

So what if we just agree that during the next week, all of us managers will ask just three questions? Sort of a practice run for a more ambitious course to come.

Question One — Ask someone on your staff, “How are you doing?”

To manage your staff’s work, you need to check in with them periodically. What’s going well? What’s not going well? How are the kids? You can manage your staff by simply reviewing their work; that gives you one data set. But remember, the great reporter would go beyond the data and ask the subject open-ended questions. Why shouldn’t the editor who aspires to be great go beyond the data, too?

Question Two — Ask someone on your staff, “How am I doing?”

This one may elicit some throwaway responses if the staffer has any reason to doubt that you want to hear the truth. But once the sincerity of your question is established, you could learn something that has great impact on your management of that person — or of the whole staff. A reporter once told me that the higher I went in the organization, the less accessible I became for the people who reported to me. I was blindsided. But she was right, and I had the chance to do something about it — all because I asked the question.

Question Three — Ask someone who wants a decision from you: “What do you think we should do?”

Think about the messages this question sends. First, it announces that the person looking for a decision knows a lot (and maybe more than you) about the situation in question. Second, it says, “I want your opinion” and gives you the opportunity to show you value it. Third, it establishes that you do not intend to be the “Answer Person.” And finally, it gives you opportunity to really establish your credibility by saying, “I don’t know what we should do.”

Great managers are comfortable saying “I don’t know.” They know the staff is confident a decision will be made — once the manager has taken time to ask some good questions.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1572290159 Stuart Warner

    The best editors I’ve worked with always did their reporting before they made decisions … the worst did not … they often took the word of the first person who got to them.

  • King-Stanley-Krauter

    Why don’t reporters want to communicate more effectively?

    Writing about today’s most facts is necessary, and very exciting, but it is also making people forget yesterday’s most important facts. This is why the pre-recession journalism on subprime mortgage fraud and the housing bubble was ignored by politicians and voters. It is also the reason why power special interest groups will be able to prevent any really reforms of our economy by just stalling for time until the public loses interest.

    This problem could be largely overcome if reporters were willing to publish an annual one week review of the year’s most important facts. Newspapers could even use this annual ritual as an opportunity to increase the demand for newspapers by children, But reporters prefer to communicate like entertainers instead of teachers. Why? No one in the news media e

  • Dave Champagne

    Really good article !

    I work in a team of Amos Toyota and I will try it for a week.
    After that, I will give you details about benefits and constraints !

    Thank you !

  • IrishRight

    Great article, Butch. While we would all like to believe we are doing these things, the fact is that we are perceived not to be, and that is reality for our staffs. I’ll be using this in my organization. – Bob

  • http://totaljourno.com/ Lara Chapman

    Hi Butch!
    Great article, especially the part about asking staff how they are “really” doing. Sometimes the nonstop work flow puts people in robot mode, taking away from basic human needs.