Recently a couple business school academics engaged in an email conversation about a number of issues within the discipline of questioning. It was immediately obvious that neither had the slightest tacit, nor even consultancy, knowledge about what business people actually know about the technology of questioning. Their assumptions were completely wrong from the get-go: two completely false assumptions held by at least 90% of business people and faculty. A third issue they surfaced is not only a non-starter, but, well. . . stupid. Still, it too needs to be addressed and put to bed.
Two of the issues are exceptionally important. That’s true not least because in the 21st century real influence grows out of having the right questions—not the right answers. Furthermore, creativity, innovation and research—today’s well-recognized drivers of business success—are built upon questions.
To keep the email interaction confidential ...
Why don’t people use the technology of questioning?
There are a number of answers to that question, but two stand out. The basic reason is simple: they don’t know how to ask questions. Admittedly, there’s no reason that people should know how to ask questions. No public K-12 school, college or business school offers work in the discipline of questioning. Even the occasional chapter or booklet on questioning avoids the most fundamental issues: question formulation and improvement. These techniques are off the radar screen. Since questioning is both a science and an art, that makes the problem still more difficult to resolve readily.
But the main inhibitor of questioning is the culture in which we grew up. For at least the last seventy-five years advocacy has usurped questioning and become the sine qua non of communication. Until just recently status and prestige have been gained by doing and telling, not asking and relationship building. Indeed, becoming a manager is license to tell people what to do. Most take it for granted that telling is more valued than asking. But advocacy has lost much of its cachet and power in the knowledge era, giving prominence to questioning and leaving most people drowning in a pool of ignorance.
If people know the question that needs to be asked, why don’t they ask it?
On many occasions when I work with a client on inquiry and we lay out some possible inquiry processes, a predictable question surfaces: “Can I really say that?” Although asking questions signals potential embarrassment or fear, there’s even more to the issue than that. Especially in business we carry strong internal rules about what is appropriate and what is not. Typically we don’t notice these rules until they are violated. It’s often easier to ask a question of a colleague than of the boss. But status, rank and role are often strong inhibitors.
Of the four or so types of questioning, information gathering, confrontational, meta-cognitive, and relationship building, expertise in the last type is key to success in the others. Relationship-building questions are non-threatening formats which never put the other person or his knowledge down, and evince genuine interest and curiosity. Typically, they take context very seriously and are artful in their design. Sometimes I approach these questions from a perspective of naiveté, but genuinely desirous of a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship. Some of the best and most trusted relationships can be built this way. These are the relationships that make information gathering, confrontational and meta-cognitive questioning possible.
But without that relationship, we may fear being taken advantage of, being threatened, losing face or being embarrassed. So it’s no wonder that the question, “can I really say that?” surfaces so often.
Much of the time the issue can be resolved through two internal questions: what actually keeps me from asking the question? And what will my firm or I lose if I refuse to ask the question? As the result of such self-analysis, questions eventually get asked. Still, it will take time to get comfortable with processes of inquiry.
Will you get fired for asking questions?
One of the most famous Harvard business gurus suggests that execs won’t appreciate questioning and don’t have time for it. I’m not certain of the planet in which he lives, but it’s obvious he misunderstands the role of questioning in the information economy--and is making fallacious assumptions. My sample of 500 execs and about 6,000 interviewees at both ordinary and major, leading firms has never, never revealed that a person was fired for asking questions. Or that questions weren’t respected. A termination for questioning is an announcement that the employee should have left that organization years ago.
The notion of “getting fired for asking questions” comes out of the industrial economy. This is the kind of stuff my dad used to talk about in the 1960s and 70s when he was a Ford employee in the factory. That kind of idea, though once believed, became obsolete in the early 1980s with the onslaught of the information economy.
Furthermore, my experience has been that people work hard at not asking questions and that they learn to be rather skillful at working through organizational minefields. They become desensitized to recognizing or feeling embarrassed by their unwillingness to ask. They just don't ask questions. And they usually act that way because they hold beliefs that someone else or the system is responsible. That does nothing but emphasize an anti-questioning mindset. And it also serves to inhibit any potential for irrelevant, over-the-top questioning. So I seriously doubt that “getting fired for asking questions” is actually a real possibility.
Intelligent, innovative and developmental questions are one of the few ways to break the hold of lethargy and apathy on organizations. As the demands for interdependence grow with the demands for information technology, inquiry will come to be understood as absolute necessity. On top of that will come the recognition that questioning is also one of the very best ways for a person to build power and influence.