A few years ago, I was on a planning day with some senior colleagues. There were six of us, I recall, looking to put together a vision and strategy for the company for the next three years. At one point, one of my colleagues asked, ‘If we were to start from scratch, would we start from here?’. I remember the eye rolling in the room from my colleagues and the impatience I felt at such a question. It seemed such a huge question and at that moment, so far away from where we needed to be. I just wanted to get on and answer the better questions…. what next, with what and when?
Looking back, I realise both what a brilliant question it was and equally why it got such a negative response. When do we really ask the right questions anymore? When do we have the time to think about the questions we ask, let alone the answers? Do we encourage employees to ask any questions? What questions? How do we feel about people who ask questions and why are questions so important?
Of course, for those of us who are parents, we know the need for questions from our children. The power of a four year old to question everything is the most natural behaviour but even as parents, we often resort to ‘because it is….!’ And it seems that from there starts the long journey through education where answers are rewarded and questions become less common. Move into GCSEs, A Levels and higher education, the ability to answer questions perfectly is rewarded with good grades, career prospects and high earnings…..so who gets rewarded for asking questions?
So why are questions important?
Questioning in life is important because we learn, both from the question we ask and from the answer(s) we get. Questions in the working environment are vital if companies are going to remain relevant to their markets, competitive, fresh and have the agility to change. Questions will bring in new thinking, new approaches and challenges to the current environment. And people who ask questions are confident, curious and often see possible change as a positive. These people are good to have around.
And yet, here’s the irony. We hear so much today about the ‘war for talent’. Companies are looking at better ways of bringing in the best candidates, rightly believing that the future growth and achievement of company goals lies in part on bringing in the best minds. But what happens when those candidates are in and working? How do we harness their talent? Exploit their potential? Do we welcome them asking questions or are they rewarded to do more of the same but quicker, better. Is the issue how to get the best talent or is it more about what we allow the best talent to do?
Any old question?
Questions that are threatening, leading or simply ones that require factual answers are not going to produce useful discussion. Taking the lead from appreciative enquiry techniques, future based open questions that focus on the positive aspects of the issue. So, as an example, asking ‘why are we not doing as well as our competitors’ will most likely yield negatives replies and perhaps some blaming language. Whereas ‘If we could imagine that in 2 years we are THE market leaders, what would that look like?’ moves the discussion onto a basis of positive ambition. So, the right questions can really unblock some negative thinking, allow you to work around hurdles that always seem to trip you up and provide some space for free thinking. It’s the questions that start with ‘What If’ and ‘How’ that can really produce some progressive thinking.
So why are questions no longer heard?
For most of us, we have worked within a hierarchical structure which implicitly suggests that those who manage others are in charge and have authority. Asking questions can be seen as a threat to that authority. Leaders don’t feel comfortable being asked questions they don’t know the answer to, and an implied punishment may be dealt out for those who challenge that authority. So, like when we were pupils at school and beyond, we remain in receive mode and our questions are limited to checking understanding and agreeing timescales.
In a climate of continuous change, where resources are stretched and workloads are growing, questions take up time. For leaders who are driven by the ‘hurry up’ style of working, questions are a distraction, something to be put aside for another time whilst we focus on the ‘important’ stuff…. getting things done. We don’t create an environment where questions feel appropriate. Instead we drive ourselves and our teams to live in the present, with no time to sit back and reflect.
And so, the self-perpetuating demise of questioning continues. In a society where we are bombarded with huge volumes of information through the internet and social media, we have become so used to answers being at our fingertips that we are forgetting what the important questions are.
Three ways a company can foster a culture of asking more questions
For companies that are finding themselves lacking innovation, new thinking and fresh ideas, engaging employees by giving them time and space to ask questions can be as powerful as the annual engagement survey where you are asking for answers, which when you get them, are very often the same year on year.
- Question Storming
How about taking an issue that everyone can identify with; the number of meetings that seem to be happening; the lack of skilled engineering employees; the level of customer complaints. Whatever the issue is, run a brainstorming session that only allows questions to be asked. It can be difficult to start with because you will want to start to answer the questions but persevere. You will be amazed at the ideas that will come from the session.
- Questions = Reward
Reward people for asking questions – create a forum where employees can ask the questions that will help to start new thinking and solve problems. Encourage sessions where employees can be rewarded for the creative ‘what if’ questions they ask. Perhaps use these as a basis for a full company event where these ‘good questions’ are then debated by tables/groups of employees and solutions are presented.
- Questions = Potential
Recruitment is often about answering the questions put by the interviewer in the right way. We always say ‘do you have any questions?’ to candidates but we expect, and get, the usual ‘what type of training is there?’, ‘when can I expect to hear back?’. How about we brief candidates to ask the panel some broad questions about the company they think are important? This could well show the panel the curiosity, potential and thinking that candidates can do, alongside their skills and experience.
Right Question Institute has some good resources on this topic and Warren Berger’s book ‘More Beautiful Questions’ covers this topic in great depth and is well worth a read.
If you want to discuss how you can enable your employees to start asking the right questions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07773 342084, for a no obligation, initial chat.