Why ask why? The importance of asking questions

Did you know that the great inventor Thomas Edison was yanked out of school by his mom after a teacher complained that Edison asked too many questions? Silly teacher! How can someone ask too many questions?

Curiosity makes the world go ‘round. Problems can’t be resolved without asking questions, and even if something fantastic is discovered by accident (like penicillin) the process would have never started without someone asking a question.

Why some leaders don’t like questions

Sad but true, but some leaders get as impatient with questions from their staff as Edison’s teacher did with Edison. Here are some reasons why:

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  • The leader doesn’t have time. Too much to do can make a leader short tempered and not in the mood for “distracting” questions.
  • The leader is short sighted. “Just do it” types who want output regardless of circumstance will put a halt to all those pesky questions designed to analyze how something can get done, because they just don’t care.
  • The leader’s ego is too darn big. An oversized ego interprets questions as challenges to authority and competency, instead of the inquisitive overflow of a creative mind seeking solutions.
  • The leader is insecure. Insecurity sees threats where none exist and causes the insecure one to shut down others who might “show him up.”
  • The leader has a negative perception of the employee. “Troublemakers,” “Chicken Littles” (i.e., those who consistently raise objections to new ideas with predictions of doom and gloom), and other challenging employee types can test the tolerance of leaders who just want folks to get in line, already.


I’ll admit I have a bias. I can’t think of many good reasons to not like questions!


The value of a good question

Any employee worth his salt is going to ask questions, because a curious mind naturally generates them. And any good leader worth her salt won’t be intimidated or otherwise threatened by a few thoughtful, pointed questions that reveal:


  • Underdeveloped ideas
  • Weak or bad thinking
  • Gaps in logic
  • False assumptions
  • Bias


And so on.


Of course, your curious employee could simply be seeking clarification. Seriously, what’s wrong with that?

Getting the most from an inquisitive employee

First, don’t assume his questions are a product of anything other than the way his mind works. The questioning employee is not trying to make you crazy or cause you to look bad, he just likes solving riddles, period.


Second, slow down a little. Oftentimes the question the curious employee asks is worth answering.


Third, be honest. If now is not a good time for questions, say so. Your employee will appreciate a candid “Shelia, I think you’ve raised some good points, but I don’t have time to address them right now. Can we meet later this week?”


Third, be grateful! Curious employees are engaged when so many others aren’t, and that’s a very good thing for you and your business.

Want to learn more about keeping employees engaged? Take a look at this PayScale whitepaper, Turnover, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.


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