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Questions are a superpower

One of the most valuable professional skills to master is the art of asking questions. Being good at this is possibly one of the fastest ways to accumulate essential information to help you do your job and to improve your own knowledge; if you move between jobs frequently or work in professional services, then this is a non-negotiable requirement.

But questions can impact the person who's asked as well as the person asking, and help influence team culture. Like all superpowers, you can use questions for evil as well as good... do you evoke the tyranny of the least informed person?

The power of the perpetual newbie

As a consultant, I'd go into new organisations for relatively short amounts of time - anything from a few weeks to a few months. The companies I went into all had similar needs; improvement in process, improvement in culture, some fresh ideas or expertise in whatever they were struggling with, some extra resource to help them get through the backlog.

There's a certain power in being the "newbie" on a team or in a department over and over again. You get about 4-6 weeks of grace to ask as many questions as you want and not know any answers before people start thinking it's a bit weird. Whether it's domain expertise, introductions to people throughout the organisation, or just simple curiosity about different patterns or processes, questions can give you not just the answers but the wider background and context that is invaluable if you want to make a big impact and avoid mis-steps.

Wholeheartedly embracing that window to ask "stupid questions" is a wonderful way to get people to reflect on their own processes and assumptions. Questions like "what's that used for?", "why do we have to do this?", "who uses this information?" will get tiresome quickly so need to be treated with care, but I've found a quick early onslaught to be more effective than slow drip-drip. Just remember that most of these questions will have a good answer! But sometimes asking the obvious questions can reveal assumptions that nobody's aware of, and start people questioning their own long-held beliefs.

In a new environment, asking questions can also be a great way to meet people and find out how the company really works. Navigating an organisation rarely means following the org chart, but working out those hidden teams and networks that make decisions and get things done - you can find out a lot of this from asking questions and seeing who has the answer. Questions like "who's the best person to talk to about..." or "how can we get this done as quickly as possible, even if it's a dirty hack?". (I'm always looking for ways that people circumnavigate the "proper" ways of doing things because it's a fast way to find the constraints in the system).

The cultural impact of asking questions

Asking questions can also have a powerful impact on relationships and culture. If the team has low psychological safety or is disempowered, asking questions can be a great way to empower people and redress power imbalances. When you can demonstrate value without having all the answers, people can start feeling more secure about displaying lack of certainty themselves. This can have a powerful impact on a team: bringing out quieter or less confident voices, encouraging a growth mindset, getting a more diverse set of input and opinion. Be sure not to put anyone on the spot if you're trying to do this! Instead, use questions to the group like "can anyone help me to understand..." or "who knows about...". On a one-to-one basis, create opportunities for people to share without fear of failure, using questions like "what's your opinion on..." or "which do you prefer, and why?".

When my job involves making changes to process or org structures, it is essential that the people affected by my changes feel that they can trust me. Trust is a two-way street, so asking people what they think and really listening to and accepting the answers (even if they don't meet your expectations or mental models) is key to letting people be heard and ensuring they're involved in the process. Sometimes my job in bringing about change is no more than giving the people on the ground a voice - they're often the people who know best what the problem is and what needs to happen.

Above all, bringing a sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness with positive intent can help others do the same.

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The tyranny of the least informed person in the room

Ok, so incessantly ask everything, right? Not so fast! Questions need be deployed with caution - badgering the busiest team members with endless trivial questions is not going to make a good impression or build good relationships. Asking questions can be provocative and disruptive, which means that they can annoy people and slow things down.

I was recently introduced to the phrase "the tyranny of the least informed person in the room". It perfectly sums up the way that a whole team of people can be brought to a halt by having to stop and explain the background, context, reasoning or detail to someone who doesn't have it and insists on being given it before proceeding. There are few things more frustrating that seeing a valuable meeting being completely derailed by the "tyrant" who shouldn't be there and insists on having everything explained to them before making progress. Please don't be that person!

Here's my little checklist of when not to ask questions:

  • Any meeting where the answer to the question is not going to be relevant to the majority of the attendees. That's usually because the other attendees already have relevant background and context or specific knowledge and expertise that you're lacking. A meeting is not the right forum for you to be brought up to speed - absorb as much as you can and fill in gaps afterwards.
  • When what's being discussed is outside of your area of influence or control. I, like many people, like to interfere in everything but honestly, it's usually more helpful to stay focused on where you can have most impact. Pick your battles and know when to let it go!
  • Don't ask a busy person a question that a less busy person could answer just as well.
  • If you're asking questions for the wrong reasons, for example to try to show how much you know or catch someone out. Intent is everything.

Questions are exhausting and scary

If this all sounds simple and obvious, it's perhaps because it is. And yet it's not something that people tend to do a lot. We build up patterns and models and behaviours and biases to make life easier for ourselves, to shortcut some of the draining work that our brain has to do. We develop blind spots and it's so hard to see what it is that we don't already know, let alone frame the question that would give us the information.

And we're conditioned not to ask. The fear of looking stupid or ignorant means that asking questions can feel risky. Every question asked is an act of vulnerability, an opening for others to judge, mock or undermine you - particularly as you rise up the corporate hierarchy.

But these are the same reasons that makes asking questions such a powerful tool in a manager's toolbox. Work out how to ask the right questions at the right time and you not only hugely increase your own knowledge and expertise, but impact the way that information flows through the whole organisation.