Marshall Goldsmith, Kelly Goldsmith

Despite the massive spending on training, companies may end up doing things that stifle rather than promote engagement. It starts with how companies ask questions about employee engagement. The standard practice in almost all organizational survey son the subject is to rely on what Kelly calls passive questions—questions that describe a static condition. “Do you have clear goals?” is an example of a passive question. 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.

Passive questions almost invariably lead to an “environmental” answer. Thus, if employees answer “no” when asked, “Do you have clear goals?” they attribute the reasons for this answer to external factors, such as “Our managers are indecisive” or “The company changes strategy every month.” Answering such questions, employees seldom look within to take responsibility for their own goal-setting.

Companies then invariably take the next natural step and ask for suggestions about making changes. Again, employees answer focusing on the environment (or outside). For instance, “Managers need to be trained in goal setting” or “Our executives need to be more effective in communicating our vision” are typical responses.

There is nothing inherently bad about asking passive questions. They can be a very useful tool for helping companies know what they can do to improve. On the other hand, they can produce a very negative unintended consequence. When asked exclusively, passive questions can become the natural enemy of taking personal responsibility and demonstrating accountability. They can give people permission to “pass the buck” to anyone and anything but themselves!

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