This Is the Reason Why Successful Companies Are Full of Questions
Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows how much I value open communication throughout an organization. I’ve always felt that when a company, its leaders, and its staff have open lines of communication from top to bottom, there are virtually no challenges they cannot overcome. And, a critical piece of that mindset is creating an environment where questions are not only welcomed, but also expected.
I’ve always felt that questions are the foundation of understanding. And the workplace—no matter what field you’re in—must be question-friendly. As a member of management, you have varying amounts of control over the people within the environment, but you can have much more control over the environment itself if you’re the one setting the tone for the organization.
If you create the right kind of environment, the right atmosphere, the right space and the right energy, the people inside of it will take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean “getting” employees to ask questions. This means creating an environment in which every employee can comfortably inquire about things and get answers. It’s building an excitement and buzz for your people to try new ways to fix old problems.
If you want to build this type of environment, there are four key tasks:
- List the reasons why employees might not ask questions
- Maintain a supportive attitude
- Affirm your employees when they ask questions.
- Reinforce the fact that questions are welcome in this environment
Take time to identify why employees are reluctant to question things
They don’t want to …
- Look stupid
- Hear the answer
- Share responsibility
- Waste someone’s time
- Appear in need of help
- Risk ridicule and rejection
- Hold up the discussion, meeting or class
- Question authority or the challenge the status quo.
- Rock the boat, ruffle feathers or commit one of those other clichéd corporate sins
- Take the chance their questions will be used against them later
- Potentially bruise their already low self-esteem
By first identifying the obstacles and objections to questioning, you can begin the process of calming fears and silencing those internal dialogues that often prevent questions from coming out.
Creating just the right attitude and environment
So you’ve done a quick self-assessment of your organization and, to your surprise, you’ve found that employees are a little reluctant to speak up. How can you and your management team turn that feeling around and create a question-friendly attitude throughout the company?
Here’s how. Just think:
- Verbs, not nouns
- Dialogue, not debate
- Searching, not snooping
- Curious, not judgmental
- Insinuating, not imposing
- Harmonizing, not manipulating
Now that you’ve read this far, here’s a little secret you should know. While questioning is incredibly valuable, it’s not really about finding the answer. Furthermore, it’s not really about asking the question. It’s really about creating a process of thinking, challenging, encouraging diverse viewpoints, and admitting that there are almost always multiple solutions to every problem.
As the leader of the company, you’re trying to bring people closer together. Make sure you maintain a question-friendly attitude. The organization will follow your lead when it comes to behavior, not just your words.
A 4-step plan to create the perfect atmosphere for communicating
If your work atmosphere needs work, follow the four steps below and with a little work, you’ll create a new dynamic at work that promotes engagement and creative thinking. However, first you have to keep reminding your staff that they work in a question-friendly work environment.
Use this list to reinforce the new approachability:
The overwhelming reason people are either reluctant to ask questions or flat-out refuse to ask them is fear. That fear can take a thousand different forms, but there is one thing that can make most, if not all, of them go away. Anonymity. It’s important to give employees the option to remain nameless. This dramatically increases the probability that they will ask questions.
For example, you could introduce an anonymous question box, a secure online forum, or a name-changing policy for all questioners.
Remember that people tend to speak up when their name isn’t on the line.
2. Disperse defensiveness
Instead of saying, “Does anybody have any questions?” consider saying, “What questions do you have?” It’s subtle, but powerful. By phrasing it this way, you’re telling people that you expect them to have questions and it makes it much less threatening.
To encourage people to ask questions, “seed” the audience beforehand. No one ever wants to be the first one to ask a question. Pre-write one to three questions and plant them with a trusted member of the audience. That virtually guarantees that others who have questions will feel comfortable to ask them.
Encourage people to write their questions on cards ahead of time and pass them to the front. This approach is less aggressive and diverts attention so people aren’t put on the spot.
Whether you’re holding a group meeting, having a one-on-one interview or delivering a speech, make sure to say right up front, “We’ll have plenty of time for questions at the end!” or “Feel free to ask questions at any time.” That way people know when it’s appropriate to ask questions.
3. Post past questions
This accomplishes several goals. First, it’s a visual representation of your question-friendly environment. Second, it immediately addresses the key issues faced by the people you serve. Third, it builds a foundation of comfort and enables people to move past their primary concerns.
Ultimately, your employees and members will start to ask more specific, more penetrating questions, now that they’ve been given permission to do so.
If you ask questions first or at least post them first, then people will be more likely to follow.
4. Be curious, not judgmental
Honestly ask yourself: Are you genuinely curious to hear people’s answers? If not, don’t bother asking. Unfortunately, we currently live in a “gotcha” culture and it’s easy for people to presume that your questions are just a means to an end, just a way to catch them in the act.
So, give signals to people that you’re their partner, not persuader. Prove to them that questioning is merely a small part of the discovery process. That way, they’ll perceive your questions as helpful, not threatening; curious, not interrogating.
Finally, remember that your job as the leader is to ask questions with the intent to listen and learn, not to control the conversation.