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Don’t Ask, Don’t Learn

Because of how we’ve been taught, our ability to engage in productive inquiry in the workplace has been deeply compromised. But it can be overcome.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

We need to teach our children how to ask better questions. Because although most jobs don’t have the potential to impact the world in the way the NASA Challenger disaster did, when employees don’t possess the tools to make a team excel through questioning, we will continue to experience failures that could have been avoided.

Without skill in asking, fraud, incompetence, and ego dominate instead of reason and group cohesion. Too few of us are taught to ask questions as a means to overcome these destructive forces.

Inquiry, as we are taught in school, comes in two main categories: “I don’t understand, teacher” and “Let me show you how much smarter I am than you, teacher.” The I-don’t-understand question is simply that. The teacher presents something, the student raises his or her hand and says, “But what if there is no squared variable?” The teacher explains, “Then use method B,” and that’s that. The student might ask one or two more follow-ons, but the structure of the class is to let the lesson continue lest one child drag everyone into his or her personal issues with polynomials.

As for the let-me-show-you question, well, it isn’t really a question at all. A professor I had once lectured that there was no such thing as “facts,” only “perception based on cultural norms”—for example, a language that works by referencing cardinal direction (north, south, etc.) rather than relative (left, right, etc.). My question: “If someone shoots you with a gun, aren’t you, in fact, dead?” I wasn’t really looking for an answer—although the professor did gamely suggest that he might not be dead if his culture didn’t accept that—I was showing off that I thought I found a logically fallacy. I was using questioning not to gain knowledge, but to gain position. If this example doesn’t immediately bring to mind a multitude of workplace situations you’ve experienced, you are one lucky person.

Indeed, because this is how we have been conditioned, we continue this approach to questioning in the workplace. I-don’t-understand gets asked by junior people who, just like students, will stop after the first or second attempt at gaining clarity, shut up, slink off, and attempt to resolve their confusion on their own or by hoping someone corrects them—just like in school.

The let-me-show-you “question” is often posed by people who have run aground in corporate politics. It is sometimes called “grenade throwing” and used to derail others, which wastes everyone’s time. (I’ll let you consider which one of those my question in Anthropology was.)

There is a better way, though. One that combines the honest inquiry of “I don’t understand” and the potentially valuable wisdom embedded in “let me show you.” I’ll call it “management questioning.” (Yes, I am using “management” as a positive.)

Boss: “What are you doing?”

Employee: Cursory answer.

Boss: “Why do you think you should be doing that?”

Employee: Somewhat more detailed answer.

Boss: “How does that align with what [the company, I, your boss, our strategy document] want(s)?”

Employee: Hopefully enlightened response, but perhaps not.

Boss: “How can we adjust what you’re doing to match?”

Employee: Increasingly engaged response.

Rinse, repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

In management questioning, someone, and not always the leader, asks pertinent questions and doesn’t stop until the explanation is fully, and I mean fully, understood by all. This is the kind of questioning that can uncover deep faults in organizations that are headed in the wrong direction. Great managers are always acting as if they are an independent investigator of their own area of responsibility. They hold the line of questioning until a satisfactory conclusion has been reached, and they do it focused on group progress, not on establishing their own superior knowledge.

This brings us back to where we started. A great example of staying the course in management questioning is Richard Feynman’s inquiry into the Challenge disaster. If his tenacious techniques had been employed in the first place, there may not have been the same tragic result. Yes, that may be an unfair use of hindsight, but I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to consider.

Richard Feynmans don’t exist in most companies. But anyone at any level of management can overcome the limits of how they’ve been taught to question. Yes, it takes nerve to re-ask a question others think has already been answered. Yes, it takes real self-control not to show off your own brilliance when pointing out a gap in reasoning. But it is down this finely calibrated road of confidence without condescension that true leaders learn to go.

David Silverman

David Silverman is an author, teacher and senior executive at a Fortune 100 firm.

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