The power of asking good questions

Asking Better Questions

Got a million words I could write on this topic, but I realize no one would ever read that, so … let’s keep it a bit tighter, no?

I was just reading this article on the power of harnessing employee ideas; here’s the final paragraph of it:

Social and collaborative tools alone do not create a flow of ideas and innovations. But they can be effective in getting people to put their minds to problems and offer ideas for consideration. To access a wealth of untapped employee potential locked up in departments and functions, all you have to do is ask the right questions.

Yep. Couldn’t agree more there. We consistently think we can build employee engagement through technology or software; the truth is, we can’t. Engaged employees is a people issue. You can’t solve people issues with new tech or algorithms. You actually have to go talk to people.

But when you talk to them, what do you do? (“Oh God, I have to talk to the rank-and-file?”) Well, to get information, you usually need to ask questions. And now we’re down a brand-new rabbit hole.

Think about this deep thought for a second:

Most of first-world society is about answers and having answers.

That’s what people mostly want/seek. You want to partially understand how Google became a multi-billion dollar company? There are hundreds of reasons, but at core you might say this: They made it easier than anything in history for people to get answers. There’s value in that, yes?

Think about it in these terms, too:

In an answer-driven culture, then, maybe we pushed down the value of the question side.

This is bad, because questions are super important. Our brains are pretty finite, lazy things — even if they’re overall amazing machines. We can’t possibly know everything in the world — although many people think they do — and even if you’re really good at the aforementioned Google, you can’t possibly access everything in the world either.

To get at what’s really going on in most situations, you need to ask questions. I write about this a lot recently, but if you line up a genius and an idiot, the genius will ask more questions. That’s the way to get smarter.

The problem here is that most articles/sources of advice about asking questions are total BS; here’s one from 2009 from Harvard Business Review. I guarantee you in 2009, most business leaders were chasing “What nickels can I find in the couch cushion of my industry to get us past the 2008 recession?” and not chasing “I need to ask better questions of my employees!,” but the article goes into basic things like:

  • Ask the right kinds of questions
  • Create a culture of questions

That’s all complete garbage. Senior leaders don’t think along these lines. No one is actively trying to “create a culture of questions.” People are trying to create a culture of fat-ass bonuses for the top dogs, you know? There’s not enough of a line between “fat-ass bonuses” and “a culture of questions” for anyone to actually care about questions.

I don’t have any amazingly specific advice on asking better questions, either … but I would say this. Everything comes from clarity. And the easiest way to establish clarity? Be specific in terms of what you’re discussing.

Final concept here, referenced in one of the links above: oftentimes, people approach questions as accusatory. It’s all about “Well, WHY did THAT happen?” Questions, to be effective, need to be forward-thinking with a dose of the past. When it’s accusatory, people are back on their heels. They’re not giving answers that advance the discussion; they’re giving answers to cover their own ass or make themselves look better. No one is winning.

If you’re talking to an employee about “engagement” issues and you want it to be effective, here’s what I’d consider:

  • What specific things have been good in the last six months?
  • What’s been bad?
  • What ideas do you want to see us pursue?
  • How would you like to be involved?
  • What makes you the happiest here?
  • What makes you the saddest here?
  • What are you hearing from others? (No names)
  • How do you understand our business model?
  • How could you see it evolve?
  • What would you like to see me do better?
  • What about other managers?

This is just a small list, but I feel like it’s a good start. These are actual questions that could lead to insight. Isn’t that the goal?


Ted Bauer


    • I think it’s more like … answers comfort people. “Oh, OK … that’s what the answer is. That’s what I am supposed to do.” Most people aren’t comfortable out in the ambiguous ether. I personally enjoy it there, but I think we all need to chase stability once in a while.

  1. I’ve really liked and have advocated for so many of the Context of Things posts. However to my thinking, the general ‘devising most appropriate inquiry’ – aka- your “better questions” concept tabled by this post is the very most important you’ve published, thus far.

    I strongly believe that not fostering/developing this ‘devising inquiry skill/aptitude” is perhaps the greatest functional failing in the American K-12 education system. In my work coaching knowledge workers, this is a core competency everyone needs to develop. I think this basic failing around appropriate questioning and inquiry thinking is relevant even beyond my other key thinking about how we should be systemically thinking about self-directed learning in our educational system.

    This is truly a great article! Thank you!

    • We need to just think about ‘being curious’ or ‘asking questions’ as a VIRTUE, instead of something that’s not ideal — which I think is how most managers view it.

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