Asking the Right Questions with the Right Intentions

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

The science fiction film I, Robot is set in the year 2035. Del Spooner, a homicide detective in the Chicago Police Department, receives a phone call to investigate a crime scene. Upon arrival, Spooner is greeted by a hologram of the recently deceased Dr. Alfred Lanning, a co-founder of U.S. Robotics. Dr. Lanning’s hologram says: “It’s good to see you son. Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.” When Detective Spooner starts asking questions, Dr. Lanning’s hologram responds by saying: “I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” After a few iterations of asking a question and getting the same response, Spooner then asks a seemingly simple, genuine, and heartfelt question. At that point, Dr. Lanning’s hologram responds by saying: “That detective, is the right question.” Then, Dr. Lanning’s hologram disappears.

Although Dr. Lanning’s hologram never provided a direct answer to the ultimate question, it does set Detective Spoon on a mission to gather additional clues. And after gathering additional clues, Detective Spooner asks Lanning’s hologram follow-up questions which lead to additional clues until the truth is uncovered and the case is solved. I find these scenes from this movie fascinating because it is a great illustration of two key points:

  1. The importance of asking the right questions.
  2. The importance of being transparent about our intentions behind the questions we pose.

In this month’s article, I’d like to share my thoughts on what we as managers can do to improve in both areas.

Tip #1: Immerse Yourself in the Process/Situation

Consider the show Undercover Boss in which the CEO of a company typically goes undercover as a frontline employee in their company. It is during this time that the CEO gets additional information which helps them to pose better questions to ask in order to solve organizational problems. As an outsider/observer or someone without direct experience, it is easy to pose generic questions. But as an insider/user (someone with experience in a process or situation), you have enough background to pose specific questions. So, to improve one’s ability to ask the right questions, managers can actively engage in the process/situation to get firsthand knowledge and experience.

Let me share a personal example. Last year, I was having a problem with a computer at my home. After reading various how-to articles, I decided to take on the task (albeit scary) of fixing the computer on my own. The process didn’t go as planned nor as smooth as indicated in the instructions. But at each setback, and with more experience, my questions went from general (“Why won’t this computer work?”) to more specific and informed questions (“Why am I getting this specific error message at this step? What does this error message mean?”). This led me to additional articles and resources. Eventually, I had exhausted all options. Finally, I called the customer service line to speak to a technician, and I was able to provide this expert with specific and well-informed questions, due to my personal experiences. The root cause of the problem was identified within 10 minutes. I really believe that without that background experience, I would not have been able to pose well informed questions to the customer service technician, which could have resulted in a longer service phone call. How did I become more informed? By immersing myself in the process/situation.

There are several takeaways here. First, by becoming an active participant in an unfamiliar process, we move from being unconsciously incompetent (not knowing that we don’t know) to being consciously incompetent (an awareness of a gap in our knowledge). Second, as one tries to develop a better understanding, the quality and depth of one’s questions will improve. The more we know from experience (success and failures), the more specific we can be in generating questions that get right at the real underlying issue. Third, as in the case with the show Undercover Boss, managers can develop a greater appreciation and admiration of their employees’ day-to-day work and expertise.

Tip #2: Be Transparent

Have you ever been around someone who appears to be guarded? Or that only gives certain pieces of information while leaving out other key details? Some employees and colleagues may act this way for a variety of reasons such as fear of job loss or the desire to maintain one’s power in the organization. In addition, these fears could have nothing to do with you personally and may be the result of past experiences that you may not be aware of. If so, the natural tendency is to be guarded to protect oneself from being blindsided by a harmful ulterior motive.

Be as transparent as possible to help others understand your line of questioning. Help them to understand the context/background. If you take the time to immerse yourself in a process or situation, you will at least have a common ground on which to communicate. Below is an example of how you might be transparent in expressing your intentions:

“I took some time to be a user in this process/situation. During this process, I generated questions that I am hoping you can answer. My intention is to become more knowledgeable on this process/ situation, and I greatly appreciate and value your level of competence and expertise in this area.

Speaking from personal experience, whenever I would disclose my intentions upfront with my supervisees, it led to a more open and trusting working relationship. Likewise, when my supervisees were forthcoming with information, it put me in a better position to support and advocate for them. In order to unlock a door, one must have and use the right key.

In order to get the information and data needed to make well-informed decisions, one must ask the right questions with the right intentions. I hope these two tips will help you in those aspects with your supervises and colleagues.

Dr. Aikens can be reached at: [email protected]

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