The Power of Questions in the Workplace

The Power of Questions in the Workplace

Table of Contents


Can an organization be built on questions?

TED Talk seems to think so. This formidable not-for-profit has become a global clearinghouse of free knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers. Pretty much obsessed with questions, the organization’s mission is devoted to spreading great ideas – usually in the form of short, powerful talks.

In his TED Talk, distinguished research scientist Dr. David Stork points out how we’re taught to solve problems in school, but not how to make them. The secret to true innovation he puts forward comes from the important skill (not always welcome in the workplace) of question-posing. “The goal isn’t finding an answer,” he posits, “but rather understanding something. Through this practice, you have the ability to be a better leader.” Yet for all that questions are worth a good many people are reluctant to ask questions in the workplace. Why is that?

Our propensity for asking questions begins as toddlers when our language skills start to develop. Why is the sky blue? Why are there bugs? Why can’t I play? Why do I have to eat peas? Why? Why?! WHYYY?!?!

After conversing with thousands of children, pediatrician Dr. Greene decided that what they really mean is: “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?” These youngsters are curious and eager to explore the world, “but they’re still asking for you.” In the workplace, questions about what and how and when and where and why are akin to asking for guidance, permission and support from leadership. Unfortunately, there’s that hesitancy factor, and it comes with good reason.

A Newsweek article, “The Creativity Crisis” cited a report that preschool kids ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve basically stopped asking questions. Around that same time student motivation and engagement plummets.

Richard Saul Wurman, architect, graphic designer and creator of TED often bemoaned how grade schools celebrate students for giving the answer, not for asking a good question. “People are not interested in learning about conversations or the asking of a question. We’re rewarded by our tests, by our system, by our answers. And yet a good question is much more difficult to do than give a brilliant answer.”

As a frequently questioning journalist Dan Moulthrop suggests, asking a good question “is sort of executing the act of curiosity. Curiosity begins with a thought and typically what follows is a question, and ultimately what follows from that is a lot of learning, and that’s really what curiosity is all about.”

It’s also why progressive managers today look for curious, creative people who ask questions such as:

  • Changes are happening in our business. How does this affect the way we do things? (More to the point, why are certain procedures or practices still in place?)
  • Competitors are using new tools that help them respond faster. Costs for that solution may be expensive – how can we adjust or respond? (In other words, why is that old equipment still in use? What are the advantages, costs or challenges involved to make a change?)
  • How would you go about handling this project? (What can I do better in my job?)
  • How can we do this better?
  • What are the ramifications if we do it this way instead of that?
  • What worked? What didn’t? Why?
  • How does this fit into the broader strategic picture?

While it’s true business environments structured under a traditional chain of command might view questions as a challenge to authority, today’s pace of change dictates agility and the willingness to ask how the tools, systems and procedures of work can evolve for faster, better outcomes. Questions trigger critical thinking. They challenge assumptions. They inspire unconventional approaches.

Not everyone has an innate capacity for creativity or a curious, inquiring mind. But anything can become interesting and applicable to anyone so long as the time is taken to get to know people, learn what makes their work a meaningful experience, help them understand the rationale behind business decisions and welcome their queries. Asking and inviting questions is a great technique to become a better manager, to increase employee engagement and invigorate passion.

Employee surveys ask for answers and guide actions. An open invitation for employees to ask questions can do the same.