3 reasons why your organization needs to democratize the power of questions

We’re taught that questions are a tool for obtaining knowledge, and that knowledge is power.  

In most organizations, however, those who already have the power are the ones who ask all the questions.

Let’s consider a common situation in which questions give a person in a higher-status role more power than you: a doctor’s appointment.

  • When the nurse checks your vitals, they ask you about your symptoms.
  • When the doctor examines you, they ask you about your diet and lifestyle.
  • Throughout your examination, you understand that the burden is on you, the patient, to provide the right answers to their list of questions to get a correct diagnosis.
  • You understand that the experts have been trained to know which questions to ask.
  • You trust that their questions will lead to a solution to the problem.
  • And you’re expected to wait until you get a diagnosis to ask questions about treatment.

In this dynamic between patient and doctor, the one who wields the most questions is the one with the power. The doctor guides the line of inquiry, and from that line of inquiry she holds the power to diagnose.

But what if the doctor were to relinquish her power and let the patient ask the questions - before making a diagnosis or even examining the patient?  What might the patient’s questions reveal that their answers do not?

The neverending search for better questions

There’s a growing interest among organizational and leadership experts in asking better questions to collect better information.

Self-described “questionologist” and innovation expert Warren Berger has spent years interviewing entrepreneurs, artists, and creative thinkers—all of whom tend to use questioning as a central part of their work.

“In our lives, in general, there’s a tendency to move along on autopilot when we really ought to be in the habit of regularly stepping back and questioning everything—about our career choices, about our attitudes and beliefs, about the ways we choose to live,” Berger says on his website.

His new publication, The Book of Beautiful Questions, examines what makes a good question and prescribes lists of good questions to ask in professional and personal situations.

In a recent article for Quartz, reporter Lila MacLellan cited a Harvard Business School study to offer counterintuitive tricks to asking better questions.

The study, authored by Alison Wood Brooks  and Leslie K. John, offers “guidance for choosing the best type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions and for deciding what and how much information to share to reap the most benefit from our interactions, not just for ourselves but for our organizations.”

The same false premise

These question enthusiasts see that the act of questioning holds the key to human innovation.

They recognize that questions can help create more value and can prevent unforeseen problems in organizations.

They acknowledge that cultivating curiosity can lead to a dramatic improvement in project performance and outcomes.   

But their approaches to using the power of questions neglect the fact that we mostly leave it to the people in power and at the top of the hierarchy, be they managers, project leads, HR partners, doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers etc. to ask all the questions.

As Chief Methodologist at Qvest, I believe that to unleash the power of questions, we need to change this core dynamic: Every human being should be asking questions in order to think and act responsibly.

There are no right questions

Human beings are innately gifted with inquiry. Their mode of questioning can change depending on who they’re asking. A question will transform if it’s asked of a person in a position of authority as opposed to a peer, child, parent, or spouse.

Just as we analyze the nature of answers people give to authority figures, we should examine the nature of the questions people ask.

Here are three reasons why you should consider placing the power of questions in the hands of all your stakeholders across your organization.

1) A question reveals more about the questioner’s perspective than an answer

Questions are the most valuable data source because they show what the people asking them know, what they don’t know, and who they turn to for knowledge.

If you were starting at a new job and had the opportunity to ask anyone in the organization one question about your new role, who would you ask and what would you ask them?

If you’re starting as a new project lead, your response may be quite different than, say, a new administrative assistant.

Each response would be different based on

  1. Your confidence level starting your new role
  2. The nature of your role
  3. Past experiences
  4. Your relationship with the organization  

All of these contribute to the perspective from which the question is asked.

And based on your perspective, the questions you ask will help an observer see:

  • What you care about 
  • What you’re unsure of
  • What you don’t know
  • Who you trust to have the answers
  • What you aren’t asking about

This unique insight can only be leveraged if you let the people you want to engage ask their own questions about the topics that matter to them.

2) Questions encourage curiosity, and curiosity drives innovation

If you’ve ever crossed paths with a four-year-old, you’ve probably gotten caught in their web of “why’s.”

  • Why is that car red?
  • Why is the sun in the sky?
  • Why can’t I stay up late?
  • Why can’t penguins fly?

It doesn’t matter what country you live in or what culture you were raised in, the “why” phase that occurs between ages three and five is a crucial part of human childhood development.

“Why” is the birthplace of philosophy, community and creativity. And questions come from human curiosity.

According to ethnographer Simon Sinek, “Creativity comes from curiosity. The more curious you are about the world, the more you experience and learn. The more you experience and learn, the more connections your brain is able to make. And with more connections, you can find new solutions to problems or see things no one else can see.”

Questioning the nature of the world is inherent to humanity, but in the Western world, authority figures discourage and control questions throughout the emergent childhood years.

  • Speak only when you’re spoken to
  • Raise your hand and wait until you’re called on
  • Don’t be so nosy
  • You ask too many questions
  • Because I said so, that’s why

Throughout the school years, kids are institutionalized to submit to authority figures - parents, teachers, doctors, police, soldiers, managers without question. 

Idioms like "questioning authority" or "second-guessing" express a notion that those who ask questions forget their "place."

Although these societal restrictions around questions are ostensibly to show respect and deference to the people in charge, treating questions as disrespectful behavior can lead to unforeseen negative outcomes

When you deny people the ability to question others’ ideas, you dehumanize them. And when you dehumanize people, you kill their curiosity and willingness to help you innovate solutions.

Today’s trailblazing business leaders recognize that cultivating curiosity is a wise and ultimately profitable strategy. Harvard Business Review recently observed, “Curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought. That’s because cultivating it at all levels helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures: When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions.”

A questioning culture is connected to the way a community distributes responsibility. If everyone agrees that no one person knows all the right questions or the right answers, you approach problems from a place of collaboration. When you’re free and encouraged to ask questions, you’re more likely to be invested in the success of your community.

3) Questions are signs of responsibility, not affronts to authority

When my son became a teenager, his questions about the world got more challenging. He saw things that made no sense or rules that seemed arbitrary and demanded to know why they were so - and why they couldn’t be made better.

As a parent of a teen, it’s tempting to interpret such questions as defiance of my authority. But the moment I discipline him for asking questions is the moment I end an opportunity for his growth - and mine.

My son is able to express his perspective and new-found inner strength through questions. By questioning the way the world is, the power is in his hands to change it.

The same scenario can play out as an employee questioning a company decision. As a leader, you have the opportunity to read such questions as a desire on the employee’s part to catalyze and take ownership of organizational change.

The question is: will you take the opportunity, or will you slam the door on it?

Questions about questions? I’d love to hear them. Ask me here:

Pia Lauritzen

Pia Lauritzen

Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.

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