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Active Questioning for Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is one of the topics that we get asked most about by our customers and prospects. In our case, those questions are more specifically related to how to get employees to participate in voicing their ideas or, more importantly, to continue participating in developing those ideas forward.

In reality, the challenges and the solutions aren't usually specific to ideation, but are more general management issues instead. In our experience, one of the simplest – yet most effective – methods for activating and engaging employees is active questioning. This post will explain the concept and provide you with some examples to get you started with them.

engaged employee

The challenge with passive questioning

As Marshall Goldsmith has well put it,  employee engagement has mostly been about "what can the organization do for you?", a form of passive questioning.

Some examples of these are: 

  • Did you have clear goals?
  • Are you happy at work?
  • How satisfied are you with your manager?

These are very common in most employee engagement surveys, project post-mortems, as well as one-on-one talks with your manager. This kind of questions are in themselves all good and fine and can obviously lead to many useful insights and improvements.

The problem, however, is that it's much more difficult to think critically about your own behavior than external issues. Thus people, by nature, tend to think about these questions in the light of the environment that they were in and not by their own actions.


Drive engagement with active questioning

As a result, passive questions aren't very effective in changing behavior from passive to active – which employee engagement really is all about – as that requires a lot of continuous effort to happen, both in individuals and organizations.

So to drive change, and thus engagement, you should start asking questions in the spirit of "what can your organization do to help you help yourself". This method is called active questioning, and is much better suited for holding people accountable for their actions, a key for engaging them.

If we were to convert the previous examples into active questions, they could be:

  • Did you do your best to clarify the goals of the project to yourself?
  • What could you have done last week to make yourself happier at work?
  • What can you do to improve your relationship with your manager?

These are obviously slightly more complicated questions to ask but are much more likely to actually result in people thinking about and changing their own behavior, which again leads to exponential increase in positive change on the aggregate organizational level.

active questioning can drive employee engagement

If we take employee ideation as an example, the people who are responsible for certain areas of ideation activities – we usually call these people category managers  should always proactively ask at least two kinds of active questions from basically everyone submitting new ideas:

  • "Could you do something (by yourself) to make this idea either happen directly or at least to get closer to making it happen?"
  • "This is a great idea. Have you thought about challenges X & Y yet?"

Whenever this is done well, we've witnessed incredible changes in the level of engagement and the results of the whole employee ideation process, both in terms of quality and level of proactiveness. People aren't now always just waiting for someone to make a decision, but might actually implement some of the low hanging fruits by themselves!


The bottom line is that people need to take responsibility for the happiness and wellbeing of both themselves and their organization (in the scope of their own role).

As an organization, your job is to best help them be accountable and carry that responsibility. Active questioning is a very simple, effective and basically free way to pursue that goal. You just need to make a habit of starting to do that with your employees.

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