The Most Expensive Kind of Question Ever Asked

If you have ever supervised people, you have been on the receiving end of these questions. If you have ever been supervised, you have asked these kinds of questions. If you’ve had to answer these questions, it’s cost you time and focus, sometimes for hours every week. If you’ve asked these questions, you knew you were doing it, but it was so much easier than thinking.

What kind of questions? Lazy ones. They come in many forms. Some start out with, “Can you help me?” or maybe “I don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they end with, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” or “I looked it up on the Internet and there wasn’t any information.”

These questions can become the bane of a supervisor’s existence. Just when you have regained your concentration on the project at hand, someone leans in your door and says, “Got a second?” When you figure out that the question being asked should have been handled by the asker, your impulse might be to yell, “THINK FOR YOURSELF!” But then you conclude that it’s just easier to answer the question than dealing with the blank stare that comes with your demand for independent thinking. But that’s where you’re wrong!

There are three consequences to answering lazy questions: 1) Enablement – It is human nature to learn by observation. If employees observe you answering all their lazy questions, they will conclude that it is okay to keep asking.

2) Cost – Time is money and lazy questions drain your time and attention like nothing else. Answering ten lazy questions a day can run into thousands of dollars per month.

3) Turnover – Asking lazy questions demonstrates the lack of investment the person has in their job. If they don’t care enough to think, why would they care enough do good work or even stick around?

Now, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The issue is what to do about it. In my experience, it comes down to the word “compel.” Compel is defined as having a powerful or irresistible effect. In other words, the person feels like they have no choice except to comply. Notice I used the word “feel.” There is an emotional element to this. You’re not forcing them to do anything. You are convincing them that it is in their best interest to think rather than take the easy way out.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to an educational technique called a “think-aloud.” Imagine a student approaching a teacher to ask for help on something he’s already been shown before. Rather than showing him a second or even third time, the teacher says, “Let’s think this through together. How should we begin?” Then the teacher waits for a response.

The student may be hesitant or even say, “I don’t know how to begin.” In response, the teacher says, “Suppose I was not here and you had to solve this yourself. What’s the first step?” Then he or she remains quiet again.

After a few seconds, the student will suggest a first step and the teacher encourages him by saying, “That’s great. Now, where do we go from here?” This process continues until the student catches on. All the while, the teacher provides a mix of encouragement and guidance, but not answers.  At the end of this exchange, three positive things have happened.

First, the student has developed an understanding of how to solve the problem. Second, the teacher has observed how the student thinks. This informs how he or she should teach and coach the student in the future. Third, in learning this new skill or technique, the student develops additional confidence in his ability to think critically and independently.

The cool thing is that you can take this technique and transfer it directly into the workplace and use it to compel employees to think creatively and independently. Does it take some time and energy to employ this approach? Yes. Will it work every time? Not at first. But after a while employees will begin to understand that you will take them through this process whenever they ask questions they should be able to resolve themselves. This will compel them to think for themselves rather endure this kind of conversation each time. Once you have this practice in place, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the number of lazy questions diminishes and everyone’s productivity rises. I know, I’ve tried it with the people who have worked for me.

So, here’s the bottom line. Unless you try this technique, you are not allowed to complain any more about people who ask lazy questions. I’m just sayin’.

Asking the Uncomfortable Questions

We’ve all been there. You’re discussing something with a colleague, an employee, or a vendor. The two of you seem to be making a decision as you hash out the issue. Yet, your intuition tells you something is missing. Maybe it’s a critical insight that’s been left unsaid. Perhaps you can see that the other person is hesitating because they don’t want to reveal something. This leaves you with that uncomfortable choice of creating an awkward moment or ignoring your intuition.

For many reasons, we have become increasingly hesitant to say or do anything that others might find offensive. But with all the sensitivities that have emerged in today’s society, that could be just about anything. As a result, we are left with the tension between asking questions that need to be asked and the fear of upsetting someone or damaging a relationship. The best decision makers have learned that the only way to gather the information needed for well-considered decisions is to sometimes ask diplomatic, but uncomfortable questions. Here’s how they do it.

Begin by considering whether the question is a legitimate inquiry. If the information will be essential to making the decision, then it needs to be asked. Recognize, however, there’s difference between a true need and just being “nosy.” In some cases, the person being questioned may know the question is coming and will accept that it needs to be answered, even if it creates an awkward moment. So once you open the door, you may find that asking the awkward question is not so awkward at all.

Next, think about the best way to ask the question. Many times, diplomacy will save the day when asking about sensitive topics. Diplomacy also fosters trust. If the person trusts you, he or she is much more likely for share what’s needed. If the person still takes offense, at least you know you’ve tried your best to approach the issue in a considerate way. The phrases below frame the question in a way that both demonstrates its need-to-know, but also your sincere intent.

“Forgive me for asking. I’d need to know . . .”

“I hope you won’t find this troubling or awkward . . .”

“Perhaps this is an uncomfortable question . . .”

“Would you mind sharing your thoughts about . . .”

“I’m not sure you’ll feel comfortable with my asking this . . .”

It takes a bit of time to feel comfortable using prefaces like these. But they can be very effective at diffusing the impact of asking difficult questions.

Finally, accept the fact that even your best efforts can fall short. If the other person takes offense, one of two things is probably going on. First, they are genuinely offended for some reason you could not have known about. Second, they are taking offense because they are attempting to conceal something. In this case, a more appropriate way for them to respond to the question would be to say, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing that.” But sometimes that doesn’t happen.

Neither of these is your responsibility as a decision maker, so don’t “own” it. You might think that it’s unfortunate that the person is unwilling to be forthright. But that is that person’s concern, not yours. The fine art of diplomacy has suffered in today’s environment of transactional communication. The best decision makers, however, work to learn this art and maintain it. How about you?

Ask Anybody Anything – It’s a Key to Success

Execs Club of Chicago seated

I’ve had the privilege of connecting with a large number of successful executives over the years. Whether it’s interviewing them for an article, facilitating a workshop, or chatting at a pre-meeting reception, I always look forward to these opportunities.

One the behaviors I’ve observed in many of these leaders is their curiosity, regardless of the person with whom they are speaking. This can be a peer, someone they supervise, a business contact, even the server delivering their meal. Typically, they don’t have an agenda, just a natural sense of wonder. They seek to understand and in the process they establish rapport.

Most people like to explain, be the expert, even dominate the conversation. Not these individuals. They’ve discovered that all kinds of surprises and insights can come from these typically short exchanges. It might be clarity on something they’ve always wondered about. Perhaps they’re conducting a sort of person-on-the-street survey. Maybe something about the other person sparks a particular interest.

At times, they can’t help themselves. I am sometimes granted just a few minutes to interview one of these leaders. Typically, I’ll open the conversation by briefly explaining my purpose. In a number of cases they have responded by asking, “Tell me about yourself first,” or “So how did you get into writing articles?” If I answer that question, however, their natural curiosity will follow up with another and another. If I’m not careful, we’ll spend half of my allotted time talking about me. When this happens, I have learned to politely interrupt them to get the interview back on track. In response, they’ll say something like, “I’m sorry, I’m always interested in what other people do.”

The result of this practice is an immediate rapport with the other person. Many times, the resulting trust wins them instant support and people willing to go an extra length if asked. This is not manipulation. It’s just a natural evolution for two people who develop an affinity for each other.

What’s the bottom line to all this? Act like a successful executive and ask lots of questions. As the old saying goes, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Asking questions is a great way to demonstrate this.