Asking questions: a tale of two managers

My 7 year old always asks questions, certainly lots of whys. He does not normally object to doing what I task him to do, but he will ask why he is being tasked with this. It seems natural to children ask questions – there is not shame or stigma associated with that – and they seem better at it than adults. They are curious and want to understand. I don’t know how much they assume or claim to know and understand, so maybe that creates space and stimulates questions.

This week I found it fascinating (and partly disturbing) to see how different managers appreciate (or don’t) when their colleagues ask questions. Within two days I was talking to two managers with different appreciation for and attitude towards people asking questions. In conversation with one of them a manager said she did not like me asking questions, but she could not articulate why. Unsurprisingly, she did not ask why I was asking questions (maybe curiosity dies on her), instead the manager merely shrugged it off and said that she wanted things just to be done. It seems that she did not understand the objective or the task, so maybe she felt threatened and uncomfortable when someone was asking probing questions.

The second manager wanted to drill down into detail how she could implement the strategy effectively and achieve the mission of her department. She was adamant that she needed people to ask her questions. When I asked her questions there were pauses as she tried to think through. Clearly she was engaged and appreciated such conversation, perhaps it was helping her to move forward with her objectives. This manager was clearly conscientious and wanted to get things done properly, and saw people asking her questions as enabling her to move forward with what was at hand.

I felt that both people exhibited different sense  of security which could be summarised like this:

  • Manager one: insecurity (but appears as security) = I know what I am doing = no questions please = do as I say.
  • Manager two: secure (but may appear as insecure) = I know roughly what to do = questions please = I need some help with this.

How do we get the job done well if we don’t ask question? It seems that the moment I forbid my sons to ask questions I am closing opportunities for them to grow, but it also seems that when we forbid colleagues asking questions we close our options to grow as a team or organisation.

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