Where Have All the Questions Gone?

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” Albert Einstein

Engaging in conversation with someone who asks thoughtful questions with genuine curiosity is noticeable; perhaps because it is becoming rare. Where have all the questions gone?

I polled leaders to see how they rate others on inquiry. When questions are lacking, they are encountering people who may fall into one of these five groups:

  1. “The disinterested.” Rather than engaging in any exchange that could spark novelty, these people let the opportunities fall flat for lack of interest or imagination. Or, they may be focused on their phone screen, so locked into a virtual reality that they do not even pay attention to anyone or anything around them.
  2.  “The fearful.” In performance driven organizations, these people feel better playing it safe than taking any risk that might make a poor impression. This usually means that they will not ask for clarity, request feedback, or wonder about something that is innovative or new.
  3. “The politician.” Once they judge someone as unimportant in their transaction or cause, these people simply do not bother to engage. They save their question-power and ingratiating comments for someone they wish to influence.
  4. “The expert.” The need to appear certain is so strong that these people make statement to further their agenda. They are so sure of their judgment that it never dawns on them they might benefit from learning.
  5. “The competitor.” Here, the mindset is he who speaks most, wins. The competitors offer their opinion or expand on their ideas rather than introducing others’ opinions or allowing anyone to upstage them. Rather than considering a competent idea or wondering about another perspective, they shut you down.

A decade ago, Marcial Losada’s research  promoted a meta-model of learning for teams that involved three variables at a ratio of at least three to one. They are:

  • ask questions vs. making statements (inquiry: advocacy);
  • focus on being positive rather than negative (positivity: negativity); and,
  • focus on others vs. themselves.

If this is true, why is in uncommon practice to ask questions?

For leaders who wish to avoid the traps listed above and become more effective, consider several types of questions that can improve relationships and contribute to highly effective teams:

Questions that engage.

In order to ask questions, seek help or feedback, or experiment with new behaviors—in other words, to learn—people need to feel safe enough to take risks, not worry about guarding their imagine when others are evaluating them, either for rewards or approval. Edmondson  coined the term psychological safety to capture the degree to which people believe their environment is conducive to taking these risks. In safe environments, people are not paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake; they do not believe they will be penalized or people will think less of them for learning. For questions that promote psychological safety, consider asking:

  • Am I making others feel valued?
  • What is important to you?
  • What support do you need to learn and change?
  • Am I present and engaged and are others feeling that way, too?
Question that include.

Nembhard and Edmondson found that leader inclusiveness through words and deeds that invite and appreciate others’ contributions help to overcome the inhibiting effects of power and status differences allowing members to collaborate. For questions that promote diversity, innovation and challenge, consider asking:

  • Have I included everyone’s opinion, even those that are dissenting?
  • What ideas have we not considered?
  • Is there a stakeholder missing?
  • What do you think, feel, and believe?
  • What might be different?
Questions that seek to understand different perspectives.

Perspective-taking maximizes choice and value by adding issues to the mix that are not necessarily in full view. Leaders who need to manage conflict, identify what customers value, negotiate, and leverage diversity will be more successful in complex organizational settings.

  • What am I missing?
  • What are my assumptions?
  • How can I understand more completely?
Questions that seek additional facts or information.

To make a decisions or be clear about outcomes, leaders need subjective and object information that will provide a full picture.

  • Do I have all the relevant information?
  • Have I been transparent and open?
  • Is there anything more you can share?
  • Who does what by when?

If you need to build your inquiry skills, consider using the nine learning styles described in How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learning to Transform Your Life as reminders. They will prompt you to remember relationships, perspective-taking, facts, and outcomes.