By: Jim Bruce

… How many have you asked today?


The importance of being able to ask and actually asking questions is verbalized in these four quotes:

  • Albert Einstein — “The important thing is not to stop questioning … Never lose a holy curiosity.”   
  • Voltaire — “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”   
  • Clayton Christensen — “True wisdom comes from asking the right questions.”     
  • Clayton Christensen — “Without a good question a good answer has no place to go.” 

Yet many of us, having reached adulthood, seemingly have lost our ability to ask questions. However, as children, we were most likely incessant questioners.
If you are a parent, you know that young children are constant, endless, relentless askers of questions. Based on a 2013 Telegraph Media Group Surveyof some 1000 mothers in the U.K., children between ages two and 10 ask an average of 23 questions per hour. Girls, age four, top the list at about 30 questions per hour while nine-year-old boys come in last in the survey at about 12 questions per hour. 
As these curious children go off to school, they appear to significantly reduce the number of questions they ask. Hal Gregersenfounder of the 4/24 Project, an organization that challenges leaders to set aside four minutes each day to ask better questions, reports that “The average six- to 18-year old asks only one question per one-hour class per month.” 
So, while we seem to be born curious, by the time we’re out of 12th grade, we’ve lost much of our curiosity. Why might that be so? Writers speculate that in school we receive recognition for right answers, not for asking good questions. And, later in the workplace this incentive continues – we reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Further, your stature in an organization may decline if you ask too many questions that challenge others’ ideas, particularly if they are in positions of higher authority. And, as this occurs, you ask even fewer questions.
To further complicate this situation, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John, note in their Harvard Business Review Article,The Surprising Power of Questions, that leaders — unlike lawyers, journalists and doctors who are taught to ask questions as a key part of their educational programs — are not trained in the skill of asking questions. In fact, leaders may not even think that questioning is an important leadership skill or that one’s ability to ask questions can be improved. Further, they may never have considered the idea that their own answers to questions they are asked might make the conversation more productive.
Brooks and John suggest five reasons why many of us don’t ask questions:

  1. We don’t understand how beneficial good questioning can be.
  2. We may be egocentric, eager to share our own thoughts and not even think to ask what others think.
  3. We may be apathetic and not care enough to ask what others think.
  4. We may be overconfident in our own knowledge and believe we already know the answer.
  5. We may fear that we’ll ask the wrong question and be seen as incompetent.

Yet, asking questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal relationships. Ken Downer,suggests that asking questions can actually be more powerful than the answers. He suggests several reasons why this is so:

  1. Asking builds our knowledge. Sometimes we want to appear smart and are afraid to ask, yet by asking we gain knowledge. And others may also, like you, have been afraid to ask. 
  2. Asking teaches us about people. As the person is responding to our question, you are learning how much this individual knows, how well they can express themselves, how they feel about their work. You also get to see something about how they think.
  3. Asking engages. When we ask a question in a group setting, everyone in the group begins to think about the question and we can benefit from those thoughts if we engage with more than a single responder. All we have to do is ask.
  4. Asking communicates value. When we ask, we communicate that we value input from others. We’re saying that I value what you think, it’s important to me. Downerwrites, “In asking questions, we are telling others that they matter.”
  5. Asking guides. When we ask questions, we guide the discussion and the thinking of the group. When others ask, we respond to their question, letting them set the topic of discussion and direct the thinking.
  6. Asking sets an example. By asking questions we create an environment where thinking about what we are doing, where looking for the better way, where questioning is always welcome. Alfred P. Sloan, formative CEO of General Motors, said it this way:  “I take it we are all in complete agreement here. … Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
  7. Asking develops others. Captain David Marquet,who commanded the nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine USS Santa Fe from 1999 to 2001, stopped giving orders aboard his submarine and instead asked his crew to announce their intentions to him. “In doing so, psychological ownership of the task shifted from him to them. Instead of waiting for his orders, they had to think about what needed to be done. Over time this approach made them better leaders and teammates because it taught them to think on a higher level.”

I’ve written about questions before, each time urging you to ask more. Here, I’ve also given you five reasons why, quite likely, you are not asking more questions. And, I’ve provided seven reasons why you should be asking more questions. Next week, I plan to provide a set of suggestions so you can up your game.
As you go about your work this week, look for opportunities to ask meaningful questions of your team. Then, in the coming weeks, you can work to “up your game.”
Do make it a great week for you and your team.  .  . .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Telegraph Staff, Mothers asked nearly 300 questions a day, study finds, The Telegraph, March 20113.
  2. Hal Gregersen, 4/24 Project, project website.
  3. Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John, The Surprising Power of Questions, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2018.
  4. Ken Downer, The Power of Asking Questions, RapidStart Leadership.
  5. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!, Portfolio, May 2013.
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