“I Will Be A Fool In A Question, Hoping To Be Wiser By Your Answer.” – in All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
A furious CEO, soon after the meeting with the marketing team, summoned his secretary to get the Head of Marketing and HR to his cabin. The secretary was obviously rattled by the intensity of the message. From her body language, one could guess that something was amiss, and, all the eyes of the organisation turned towards the CEO’s glass cabin to watch the drama inside. “Gentlemen, do you recall that guy in the meeting? I know that he joined recently. What was his background and was he inducted properly by your system?” Questions flew like bullets from the muzzle even before he offered a seat. Wiping out the sweat on his forehead, he reached for the bottle of water before firing the next salvo at us!!
“Ram, I must compliment your hiring; you know why? Though new to the system, the guy asked some torpedo like questions which none of us ever asked, and actually, it set me thinking over many things! “ He was upfront, pointed, and, had used data to land his questions. For a novice, that’s truly amazing! “ The conversation ended!!
A few historical events leave us with a lasting imagery, especially if the incidents had disastrous outcomes such as the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic in 1912 in the Atlantic and the explosion of the Challenger Spacecraft explosion in 1986. Our typical response is to get down to explore the reasons and come out with a report. Yes, a must one needs to do.
But, if you reflect over the mentioned office conversations from the concrete jungles, and, the tragedies from the pages of history, they will point out to one simple, basic flaw in our style of being and living. That we do not choose to seek, ask, clarify, or question the things that happen around us. We also get rattled when someone asks questions. Strange as it may appear, that is what we mostly convey through our silent and weak acceptance of points and situations, which, to a large extent, impact our lives and choices.
Questions and its efficacy
Is not asking a question such a big deal, one may wonder. Yes indeed, is my line of argument, since I have been a part of many organisational episodes that turned out to be great since someone questioned and also flopped since none questioned!
1. Why do we hesitate to ask questions?
If we reflect on the way in which we grew in our environment, we may have some answers as to why we have difficulties in asking questions. At schools, early in our age, we were taught that the Gurus are people to revere, and, none can question their wisdom. At home, we were raised with appreciations such as “good obedient boy”, “she understands well and never questions.“ At work, we get plaudits from the bosses to keep our mouths shut at crucial meetings. I am not here to say that such grooming is problematic. It becomes problematic when we simultaneously do not allow the faculties of curiosity, enthusiasm, playfulness, and questioning to flourish to counter the downsides of the proud upbringing. Hence, it is incumbent on all types of leaders and coaches to recognise this inherited handicap we all come with and help leaders to scale up.
Protection of self-esteem
Nothing can knock of a person’s self-esteem than being ticked off as not so intelligent, not so smart, low on IQ etc. ‘especially in public glare.’ As humans, each of us crave for inclusion and honour. So, even before anyone asks a question in a forum, the image of being let down comes to the mind and chokes our thinking process. Many a times, a “know all leader“ will shut those questioning with nonverbal gestures such as raising eyebrows, frowning of the face, and looking elsewhere etc. A few experiences of this sort will not only shut the person from speaking in the forum, it sends a clear message as to the culture the leaders wants to seed in.
Lack of skill in asking questions
As per the NLP (Neuro Linguistic Process), only 10 % of a person’s communication is influenced by the choice of words one uses. The remaining 90 % of the understanding is derived by several conscious and unconscious non-verbal cues the person demonstrates during the communication. Basically, the core idea of this research finding is that it is not what you speak that matters most, but, it is how one speaks that counts!!
When we assess ourselves against this cognitive reality, we may note that most of us lack the skill to ask a question in a manner that elicits the desired outcome and response from the respondent. Hence, it is natural that most of us do not possess the skill to ask the questions, and therefore, prefer to just nod and move on, even when he or she ought to have spoken or questioned.
The cultural context
Another powerful influencer on our hesitation to ask questions is an outcome of the environment in which we live. Here, we are talking about the experiences one goes through in work or a family as adults. The office examples shared at the beginning is actually the impact of the culture that exists in an office environment. We could easily assume which of the two organisations would be facilitating the culture of asking questions from the leader’s reactions and which would not.
In the Indian context, where the power distance (Hofstede’s study findings on culture) equation is very high, there is a natural tendency to accept the wisdom, and, the presence of the hierarchical authority. In such cultures, questioning the leader, is at times, even tantamount to defiance and disrespect. Here we grapple with a larger issue of country culture. Going by the above, organisations can either take a legitimate stand or perpetuate this handicap or can take a bold move to break away from this shackle and seed the culture where enquiry and dissent are encouraged. Some reasons that convey a sense of urgency to imbibe the questioning culture.
2. Compelling reasons to facilitate a culture that support questioning?
The demographic shift
“We are the product of the times we live in“ is the axiom. This holds good even at this point in time. But, there is one major shift in the meaning of this axiom. Times then were far saner, even paced and predictable, and, flowing like a serene river on its chosen course. None of the above adjectives used ever fit in to what we are going through as you read this. Over the last two decades, many categories of employee demographics such as Gen X, Y or Millennials, and even Gen Z have emerged at the work places. Each generational product has a distinct pattern of scanning, speaking, inferring, listening, and, making sense of their worlds. With almost 60% of the workforce globally falling in Gen Y and Z categories by 2022, the way organisations communicate and engage have to change. This is so because this workforce is wired differently and wish to seek more information on anything to act upon. This means organisations have to shift from their monologue delivery to a more engaging mode of dialogue. The fulcrum for this engagement is the freedom to ask questions and organisational culture that support.
In Quotes ““We are the product of the times we live in“ is the axiom. This holds good even at this point in time. But, there is one major shift in the meaning of this axiom. Times then were far saner, even paced and predictable…”
The VUCA World
Every leadership forum over the last ten years, would have had a guest speaker or a panel discussion on this topic. Under VUCA, where change is the only constant, all employees and stakeholders are perpetually grappling with issues that are unclear, ill-defined and untested. During times of such change, the organisation has to really do a great deal more than simply communicating their messages. They need to understand the employee perspectives/opinions and challenges, and, this can happen only when the employees feel empowered to ask relevant questions to the leaders. When an organisation encourages such a questioning culture, they are seen as transparent, respectful to employees, and, this builds the credibility of the leadership brand and the organisation.
Robust decision making
The leader of the 90s was respected for all the answers he or she had!! Times have changed rapidly, and today, if the leader alone has all the answers, then he will be effectively driving away the best of brains from the organisation. Sounds contrasting? But, armed with the power of knowledge at their fingertips, and, with the belief that the world we live is nothing but a large village, the aspirational new era employees demand their fair share of inclusion intellectually, emotionally, and value public recognition hugely.
In such an environment, imagine a leader who announces in the Town hall, “Guys, I have all the answers, so don’t worry!“ On the other hand, if the leader with self‑awareness promotes a culture of questioning, the organisation stands to reap the benefits of more than one brain. When decisions are arrived through such interactions, they are bound to be qualitatively more robust and emotionally more engaging. This in turn sets off a positive spiral of ownership, engagement, motivation and performance.
Promotes bonding and trust
Organisations deliver outcomes through individual and collective efforts. At one level, it operates as an island of excellence where a single, niche talent shapes outcomes, and on the other, it can be seen as an archipelago of talent pool that come together to deliver value. In an increasingly chaotic world, interdependencies only keep increasing since technology generates and shares information in real time. At times, we are struck with many choices that appear to be right, and yet confused, as to which is right. It is at such intersections that the teams that live by sharing information and seeking clarifications through questions come together to deliver results. Here, the questioning process provokes everyone to bring out their best in terms of ideas, and, once decided help them to go the course in full throttle. Besides helping to build teams, the questioning tool can be immensely effective in problem solving, idea generation, conflict resolution, and, to gain consensus to a chosen line of actions. Smart leaders use this powerful tool in subtle ways to influence outcomes.
3. How could leaders foster a culture that encourages questioning as the DNA?
Like in any organisational process, the leader and the leadership team play a vital role to foster this much needed culture of the millennium. A few actions by them that will help the cause are as follows:
A. Be a great listener first
One of the reasons as to why leaders hesitate to nurture a questioning mind and seem to dispense solutions from their inventory rather quickly is that, they do not listen well enough to pick out the ideas that get tossed up by those who participate. Below the surface, this is how the mind seems to work. If I have to listen well, I must encourage them to share more or ask more of their views on the debated topic. When I listen with intent, then it is incumbent on me to either rationally present a counter or accept the idea and implement. This is the Waterloo the leaders fear. For many good and not so good reasons, leaders tend to avoid getting into this longer but enabling loop of dialogue. Since the leader is constantly under pressure for time, the shortest route of, “I say, you do“ come to play, and, this virtually shuts any hope of enabling a questioning culture.
B. Adapt a learner’s mind-set as opposed to a judgemental mind-set
It is important for the leaders to adapt a style that asks questions to foster creativity, analytical thinking and empowering. For instance, soon after a failed mission, instead of asking as to what went wrong and who messed it up, the question can be reframed as “what did we learn from this failure and how would we deal with it differently next time around.“ Such messages uphold the team’s esteem and forces an honest reflection of the incident. It also garners a great amount of commitment to the next attempt.
C. Do not blurt out the answers before questions are encouraged
The followers are well aware that the leader would not have got in there, but for the competencies demonstrated. Hence, withholding your answers till the issues get discussed through questioning will do good for the members. By doing this, the leader allows a free discussion on the issue, forges a solution through the team, and also leaving a message that “he or she do not have all the answers all the time.“ This in turn, fosters collaboration and cohesiveness among the members of the organisation.
D. Ensure alignment of values with the questioning culture
Leaders need to realise that a questioning culture is not an attempt towards behaviour modification. It is far more deeper, touching the values that organisations stand for. We come across organisations that support longevity and loyalty as desired value behaviours, and, in such an environment, it is important for the organisations to clarify the meaning of these words by encouraging questions around the values. Questions such as- do our values support the questioning culture? Who we are as an organization? and so on.
E. Reward and appreciate those who question
Several decades ago, Peter Ducker said, “What gets measured get done.“ As operating leaders, we are aware of the impact of our work when solid, tangible measures are used to convey a point. In the same way, leaders need to explore ways and means to embed the questioning culture and should also facilitate to spot and reward those who practice it in a productive way. The more organisational members see it getting rewarded, greater are the chances of adoption and practice by others.
F. A DIY list to practice
Nothing can replace a hands-on effort to change a practice or behaviour. E.g. If one wants to shed weight, the person has to do something about it to get results. Using this example, the following ideas are shared from the perspective that “trying it oneself can widen one’s awareness“ and, the more aware one is, greater the chances of learning /unlearning.
Questioning, in many ways, is the bedrock of human survival and evolution. Imagine what would have happened, had Newton not questioned the reason for the apple to fall on his head in 1726, or, Archimedes had not questioned the displacement of water in the tub when he immersed the Golden Crown in 287 BC, or Alexander Fleming in 1928 had failed to ask as to why the bacteria in one culture alone had died while in others nothing happened?
In our homes, do we not notice the amazing knack of children asking those knockout questions to parents? Somewhere down the line, we are losing touch with those very same skills and traits that differentiated us from the other living beings. It is time that conscious efforts are made at all levels to inculcate the habits of critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The answers to all these lie squarely on how we will ask questions!!
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