I have asked a lot of stupid questions in my life as a business journalist. Fortunately, most were in one-on-one interviews, so my embarrassment was quarantined. Still, I remember piping up with a stupid question in a meeting once, and my cheeks burned for hours afterwards.
Somewhere between the age of four and becoming a teenager, the number of questions we ask each day plummets from 300 to three. And, although most leaders understand the benefits of asking questions, they struggle to ask them. Why?
Embarrassment. Leaders are meant to have the answers. If they ask questions of others, they encourage us to ask them back. And, if a leader doesn’t know the answers, that can feel uncomfortable.
Risk. We see what curious people do – open Pandora’s box, Bungie jump from bridges, go into war zones. Curious people can find it almost impossible not to satisfy their itch, sometimes to disastrous effect.
Time. There is never enough. Leaders are under constant pressure. Ask a bore an open-ended question and you can lose precious minutes – or hours. Even a well-constructed question and answer session will take longer than barking out commands.
Protection. We fear some answers. Boredom is beautiful compared to a whinge, whine or some “constructive” criticism.
Irritation. Truly curious people, who channel their inner four-year-old, are pretty annoying. Most leaders think the best way to manage constant questioners is to discourage them as much as possible.
It’s a list that makes sense of the tendency for leaders to crush curiosity in their organisations. But crushing questions comes at a cost.
The planners and builders of the Titanic had their doubts about the luxury ship that sank in 1912, killing over 1500 passengers. But they didn’t want to look stupid.
Most of us long to be asked, and few of us like to be told. Yet told we are and asked we are not. After a while, we disengage. Without questions, we assume we are neither interesting nor valued by our leaders. Questions make conversations more productive and boost everyone’s motivation.
Getting stuck in our ways
Routines are efficient; they save the brainpower that we might spend on deciding what to have for dinner every Monday. Every business leader knows, however, that innovation is king. Curiosity is the fuel that keeps innovation burning.