Should Employees Be Trained to Ask Questions?

Some cultures welcome questions, and some don’t. In academic settings, where I spent a lot of time (graduating both from college and graduate school), questions are treated with great respect and enthusiasm. Some companies also probably welcome questions, but many others do not. 

I’ve noticed that the head of our department isn’t crazy about my question asking. He often gets impatient. Just last week, he snapped, “I have to get back to work.” 

But I thought fielding employee questions was the work! Isn’t making sure your employees understand everything they need to know to do your assignments a key part of the job for any manager?

I was curious about the art of question asking and the role it can play in the workplace, so I looked up articles about it online, and found one from Harvard Business Review, “Relearning the Art of Asking Questions” by Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas. The authors note the natural tendency most of us have as children to ask questions, and wonder where it goes in adulthood, especially in the workplace. They cite the nearly universal high-speed work culture as one reason questions often are devalued: “Because expectations for decision-making have gone from ‘get it done soon’ to ‘get it done now’ to ‘it should have been done yesterday,’ we tend to jump to conclusions instead of asking more questions. And the unfortunate side effect of not asking enough questions is poor decision-making.”

The manager wants it done right away, so there is no time for the employee to pause, think about the request, and ask questions that might expose problems with the manager’s request, or ways the employee might be able to do the work differently so the end result turns out as good as possible. 

A clever manager might realize that one way to give assignments, or “orders,” is to ask questions. Instead of telling an employee to fix the company Website’s homepage, the manager might meet with the IT and marketing departments, and ask the group: “What do you think could be done to make this page better and more user-friendly?” Then, for the next half-hour, the manager could sit back and take notes as the employees rattle off ideas for improvement. Chances are, the employees have noticed the same issues that are bothering the manager. After those issues come to light, the manager could ask the employees what they think the best way would be to fix those issues, rather than simply ordering them to fix it. That way, the manager avoids asking the employees to do things that may not be possible given the limitations of the current technology. It also makes it more likely that one of the employees will point out additional resources that will be needed. An employee might offer suggestions for fixing the issues, and then note, “but to do that last thing, we’re going to need to upgrade the platform the site is hosted on.”

If the manager had just pointed out what needed to be fixed, and told the employees to fix it, the conversation might have turned argumentative and frustrating with the employees trying to explain why what the manager was asking for was currently technologically impossible. Asking questions, rather than giving orders, empowers the people who are responsible for doing the hands-on work.

Another question-based option would be for the manager to note areas of the Website he or she didn’t like, and then to ask the employees, “Is it possible for us to fix those things? If so, what would be the best way to do that?”

A culture that values question asking from the top is a culture that values listening. When you center your management style around question asking, and information gathering, you turn into a manager who’s a great listener. When managers ask questions, employees are sent the signal that it’s a good thing for them to do the same.

Once great listening has been mastered, the company’s whole culture changes into one in which information is valued from the bottom up, in addition to the top down, creating more empowerment for new ideas and innovation. 

Does your company’s culture value question asking more than order giving? How do you train leaders to ask questions, gather information, and listen, and to welcome questions from those they manage?


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