We live rurally where removal of garbage is our responsibility. There’s no scheduled pick up. We need to deliver to our local landfill. It’s a simple enough chore which one lucky member of the household does weekly. On a recent visit, I noticed a bold, new sign that had been made and installed on the route up to the bins. The sign noted a speed limit for visitors to follow. It boldly and clearly presents in large caps, “SPEED LIMIT 20 KPH. VIOLATORS MAY LOOSE PRIVILEGES.” I couldn’t help but notice a glaring typo on the sign. I think the sign was intended to deter would-be speeders with the threat of losing privileges. How did the sign end up with “LOOSE” instead of “LOSE” presented on it?
The sign wasn’t made by the folk that operate the district’s landfill. Someone at the landfill had responsibility for communicating their needs to the sign provider. The sign provider likely had both people receiving the instructions as well as those preparing the sign. There were likely proofs done and signed off by the landfill folk. The people making the sign, independent from any proofs, would still have seen things before, as, and after the sign was made. Even once completed and delivered to the customer, those that received the sign would have, presumably, taken a look at it. Then it would have passed hands to the person assigned responsibility to install it. Finally, once installed, staff would be driving by the sign themselves multiple times a day.
At least a handful of people would have been part of this process and even more impacted by it daily. How many people saw the spelling mistake but said nothing? Is it really possible that not a single one of them noticed the typo somewhere along the way or even now? Did those that noticed alert anyone of the error? Why wouldn’t someone have politely pointed out the problem? Sure, we can shrug our shoulders and offer “who cares?” Or, “what’s the big deal? It’s just a silly sign. I know what it’s supposed to say.” But shouldn’t we be asking why are we scared to ask questions? What errors are we letting slip by because we’re too scared to ask or too blind to look for answers?
We consider experts and those in positions of authority as being those things because they have the answers. Competence is seen as knowing stuff. We grow up going to school and living with parents where we’re supposed to be asking them questions for which they have the answers. Our default is to believe that they know, that’s why they’re in charge. We lose faith in those that aren’t able to answer our questions. For many of us, seeing leaders that are curious and ask questions can seem out of place. If we are a leader, is our go-to assumption when someone is at our office asking a question to provide answers? Do we consider our role as leaders including having all the answers? Do you ever get defensive when asked a question for which you may not know the answer?
An unwillingness or inability to ask questions lies at the feet of many failures. From military, medical, and aviation mishaps, to business and sports screwups, unquestioning approaches are an assault on excellence. Bad leadership is exemplified by the inability to ask questions. Sometimes we don’t ask questions because we’re afraid of sticking out. We want to fit in. We’re reminded to go along to get along and to not rock the boat. However, these sorts of phrases are incompatible with improvement. They are the language of losers. It is the antithesis of leadership. Others cling to the perspective that they’re not being paid enough to think. People taking this approach are demonstrating a lack of interest or commitment to their role. They are devaluing their contributions. Lazy leading features the barking of orders exhorting others to follow. Learning and dictating are incompatible. Directing and empowering are inconsistent with each other. Believing expertise reflects having the answers is the opposite of being humble enough to cultivate curiosity. Deep down we accept that asking questions are part of progress yet, it’s hard to be humble and respond “I don’t know.”
We avoid asking questions to protect and insulate ourselves. Part of us doesn’t want to acknowledge not having the answers. Another part of us may not want to know the answer where we fear bad news. In other circumstances, we think asking questions delays action. Our bias for action can impair inquiry. Where we choose accelerated action over patient inquiry, we risk making things worse. Too often, our go to question is “What are we going to do about it?” The question itself implies action as an imperative. Remember, only fools rush in. Pause to Ponder. Making asking questions our first step in a crisis is an act of self-discipline. Our culture may also preclude questions. If we’re to be seen and not heard and do what we’re told, we’re likely reluctant to speak up and ask.
The late management maven, Peter Drucker, considered the ability to question one of the core characteristics of effective executives. Two of Drucker’s nine practices shared by effective executives included consistently asking questions like what needs to be done and what is right for the enterprise. Jim Collins in Good to Great observed, “Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision. It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.”
How are we helped by questions?
Questions are at the root of our attention and awareness. They wake us up and fuel our focus. Questions provide insight into us. Our self-talk is often questions we are barely paying attention to. Questions clarify and help us determine what’s important now. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, no business can be brilliant without being able to “confront the brutal facts of reality.” Questions help us get real about where we are. In Why Smart Companies fail, Sidney Finkelstein goes further calling companies that don’t question things regularly “zombies.” Zombie companies are “a walking corpse that doesn’t yet know that it’s dead.” An unwillingness to question things, leads to blind spots and an inability to adapt. Getting better and making progress depends on awareness and honesty. We need to ask ourselves tough questions. In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker suggests we ask the following two questions to accelerate our awareness: “Where are your activities taking you? Is it where you want to go?” Or as Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas encourage us to ask in Power Questions, “How will this further your mission and goals?” Should I be doing this? Questions like these can help get clarity on the importance of a decision. How will this action/decision support your values? How will you know? Catherine Hoke in A Second Chance invites us to ask, “What are your non-negotiable driving values in your life?”
Questions offer insights into improvement. They are the heart of learning. To reflect is to ask yourself questions. We can’t learn without reflecting on our experiences or our plans. We can’t reflect without questioning. Questioning is how we learn. Indira Gandhi was the third Prime Minister of India. She considered questions as a key aspect of improvement, observing, “the power to question is the basis of all human progress.” Michael Dell said, “asking lots of questions opens new doors to new ideas, which ultimately contributes to your competitive edge.” Questions spur curiosity that drives creativity and innovation. Kobe Bryant wrote in The Mamba Mentality of how his curiosity was fuel that fed his development observing, “It was always fun to watch, study, and ask the most important question: Why?” Sobel and Panas suggest asking, “What have you learned?” Innovation isn’t an accident. It follows inquiry. Questions help us see things differently. Questions allow us to explore the edges and expand our perspective. What if questions prompt a search for possibilities. What if we tried X? Is there a better way? What possibilities exist that we haven’t yet considered? A commitment to questioning is a commitment to being open to improve. It’s not a one and done event. Regular questioning is always looking for better ways of doing things. When we’re new in a role it’s reasonable to ask why we do things this way in order to probe for understanding of how we got to where we are.
Questions engage and empower others. Asking others for their input is a reflection of confidence in them. It shows that you believe they have value to add. When we’re willing to ask each other questions it suggests that we see others as a resource. It’s a positive perspective of people. I’m asking you a question because I believe you have something useful to contribute to the conversation. Where leaders simply dictate and direct, they see people as useful only to the extent of them doing what they’re told. They offer nothing other than their actions. Where we question, we’re validating and seeing them. We are seeking information, insights, and energy from them to make the organization better. If a leader, consider asking, “If you were me, what would you do?” As people are able to provide answers based on their experiences, they feel part of the process and more committed to decisions. When leaders ask questions, it improves their credibility with others. Michael Marquardt writes in Leading with Questions that the message a leader sends by questioning is, “I care about what you think, and your opinion is important, and it counts around here.” This message motivates people and brings out their best contributions.
Questions build relationships. Questions lead listening. Leaders listen to learn instead of tell and direct. Listening can build empathy. Questions are how we build relationships. We learn about each other, what’s important, where we’ve been, what we have in common all through asking questions. In the work world, offering a question like “What do you think?” serves to endear the asker to the asked. We all want to be heard. We all believe we have something to contribute. When the powers that be ask me for what I see, I can’t help but be happy. When you meet a couple for the first time, a common question to pose is “how did you two meet?” People love to talk about themselves, and this question can offer some interesting responses. A similar question serves in business. How did you get started? Asking questions involves others and makes us listeners. We can use a question like, “If the circumstances were turned around, how would you like to be treated?” as an effort at developing empathy.
Questions reflect humility. Instead of I don’t know being bad, we should seek to see it as being A-OK. It takes courage to ask questions and accept that we don’t know everything. After all, it’s true. As Professor Julie Ponesse said in a recent speech, “It’s always better to have questions that can’t be answered than to have answers that can’t be questioned.” In Don’t Burn This Book, Dave Rubin writes of Dr. Jordan Peterson, “He is universally revered—and feared—for his incredible intellect and emotional insight. And yet he’s still able to say the following words: ‘I don’t know.’” Questions reflect that we don’t have all the answers. We’re not wedded to a single way. Questions open doors. An unwillingness to ask closes doors. It precludes possibilities. It reflects an arrogance or ego which are the opposite of humility. British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, gave us the suggestion that it’s “a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.” Proactively questioning the way we do things is a sign that we can never be sure. The Universe of what we don’t know always exceeds the tiny planet of what we do. Accepting this fact leads us to default to being less confident in our positions. Leaders that ask questions are seen as more modest. Modesty and humility are seen as strengths. The leader gains credibility through the questions they ask.
Questions draw us towards a vision and inspire. President Kennedy’s classic question “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country?” led to many thousands of young people becoming more civic minded and contributing their efforts.
Questions enhance decision making. What is thinking other than asking questions? Do we want our leaders to be good thinkers? If so, then we need them to become better at asking questions. Knowing what to ask is of greater value than knowing the answers. Leaders can no longer possibly be all-knowing. The world is moving too fast. Information continues to expand exponentially. Questions help us try to make sense of things and allow us to sift through the deluge of data.
As important as asking questions appears to be, it’s unlikely we’ve ever been taught how to ask questions or what questions to ask. We’re encouraged to be critical thinkers, but what does this even mean? What constitutes a good question? How do we create a more disciplined approach to questioning things? In our next note, we’ll attempt to offer answers to these questions as well as some actionable guidance as to how to invite a spirit of inquiry into your organization.