It is common for managers to be promoted not for their notable people skills, but for their outstanding technical knowledge or abilities demonstrated in their previous role, says Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms.

As a result, many of these accidental managers revert to a common command-and-control leadership style when given their own team to support, whereby they continue to do what they know how to do well—stepping in to solve the problems brought to them by team members, except now by ‘telling’ them what to do.

But by helicoptering in in this way, the manager repeatedly robs employees of valuable learning opportunities to do the thinking and come up with solutions themselves—crucial for their own learning and career advancement.

Although perhaps coming from a place of wanting to help, the manager is inadvertently conveying a lack of trust in their employee’s capabilities. Discouraged as their confidence, growth and development declines, continued marginalisation of team members in this way ultimately contributes to lower levels of employee engagement and productivity.

So, how can HR help their line managers to ditch the helicopter command-and-control approach and cultivate more trust with their teams instead? Here are 3 tips:

1. Encourage more powerful questions

Adopting an enquiry-led approach means changing the way that managers ask questions. Having laboured under a mental model of being the problem solver, we’ve all learned to ask questions which are typically diagnostic, intended to gather the data that we need about a situation so that we can diagnose the problem and we can formulate a solution. Use of a more intentional enquiry-led approach leaves accountability for resolving the problem with the person who brought it to the manager’s attention in the first place. By asking questions intended to stimulate their thinking about the situation and to help them determine an action that they could take towards its resolution, employees are encouraged to stretch their thinking. It’s key not only to increasing performance and engagement, but also for fostering an authentic connection and trust with staff.

This isn’t a case of already having the answer in your head and then just asking questions to shepherd them towards the same conclusion. Humans can sense that; it feels manipulative, and it makes them distrustful. The manager’s goal here should be to help staff develop fresh insights and to take action. But breaking age old habits is hard, and adopting new skills is a challenge for any of us.

And for anyone reading this thinking that this is the same old same old, obvious advice, the UK Government recently sponsored an extended research trial (conducted by the London School of Economics) of a new management discipline that embodies this enquiry-led approach called Operational Coaching®. The results from the research (conducted across sixty-two organisations in fourteen sectors) proved that managers who pursued a learning programme that helped them to adopt new behaviours that supported the use of this more intentional enquiry-led approach, increased the amount of time they spent coaching their team members by a statistically significant 70%.

A first small step that HR can take on the path towards changing our diagnostic habits, is to encourage managers to replace their typically diagnostic (and helicoptering) ‘why?’ questions with ‘what?’ questions instead. Why-based questions can feel like a personal attack, like the employee is to blame somehow or that they are being criticised, which leads to defensiveness. Replacing why…? with what…? removes the (unintended) personal inference of a question and focuses on the artifacts of the situation itself. The employee is then more likely to be open to exploring the specific reasons rather than feeling that they need to justify or defend their actions.

2. Encourage active listening and acknowledgement

Helping managers to actively listen to an employee’s response to their questions indicates that the manager is genuinely interested in what they might have to say. HR can encourage managers to be present in the moment with an employee and to make a conscious effort to sense their state. What is their mood? How rapidly are they breathing? How much energy do they seem to have? Do they seem stressed?

Acknowledging that you’ve listened to someone is an important part of building empathy with them—they feel heard. For example, when a manager is listening to a challenge an employee is facing, help them to form more empathetic responses like “I hear what you’re saying. That sounds really difficult. I absolutely get it. Let’s work together on this. May I ask you another question?” This will help the employee to open up to their questions and ease into a conversation that’s more natural. The manager will in turn foster trust in that moment and develop a more human connection.

3. Encourage silence

A challenge that managers might face initially is resisting the impulse to interrupt someone. If a manager has asked their employee a question and there’s a period of silence, they can often interpret this as the person not having understood the question. Consequently, they can feel the need to elaborate on the question by offering examples for them to consider or providing guidance in the form of multiple-choice options for them to choose from (is it like this, or was it like that?). This prevents the other person from genuinely doing their own thinking.

Encourage managers to bite their lip and resist the urge to affect their employee’s thinking in this way. Having created an opportunity where the other person is now doing some thinking, giving them the space to do that valuable mental work is crucial for developing trust. Filling the silence could be disastrous; it may actually extinguish the spark of an emerging thought or idea that they were shaping which might have turned out to be brilliant. Managers must let the silence hang. This helps managers remain receptive and allows them to lean in and actively listen to their employee’s response. When managers genuinely demonstrate that they’re listening, and they’re asking sincere and stimulating questions, staff will sense that they are coming from a good place, and they’re more willing to put effort into their thinking process.

While this may not be an overnight process, by helping managers to develop these powerful communication skills, a more trusting relationship between managers and their teams will flourish, ultimately leading to increased workforce efficiency, engagement, productivity, performance and organisational growth.


Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms are the CEO and COO of Notion.