Leader listening to employee


Why your leaders ignore your questions and how to make them listen

Have you ever held back a question or an idea because you were afraid of how your leader might react? If you have, you are not alone. In a survey of more than 3,000 employees from a wide range of firms and industries conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.

During a crisis like the one we find ourselves in, your leader may be even less willing to entertain your questions. Just last week, a Danish middle manager sent me this note, describing perfectly how many of our leaders are behaving these days:

“I’ve been seeing the worst side of leadership—it’s motivated by fear of not performing and it results in poor decision-making. During a crisis, curiosity seems to go out the window and is replaced by self-centered, omniscient control.”

In times of crisis, lack of curiosity can lead to massive business losses

According to Gino, curiosity is vital to an organization’s performance. Her research shows that cultivating curiosity helps leaders and their employees adapt to uncertain market conditions and external pressures because, “when our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions.”

Her research also shows a correlation between leaders’ curiosity and fewer decision-making errors, more innovation and better team performance. All things your company needs right now.

During this global pandemic, the stakes are high for the incurious leaders. Their lack of curiosity and unwillingness to listen to questions could result in mass layoffs, entire businesses closing and thousands of people losing their jobs.

But, this is an opportunity—for you. By exercising your own curiosity and by asking questions—of yourself, your peers and your leaders—you can ignite your leader’s curiosity and help your company weather this crisis and thrive.

As an employee, your questions hold a lot of power

But how do you make your leaders curious when they are ignoring your questions? And why are your questions so important—can’t you just fill out the annual leadership performance survey?

Unfortunately, the feedback you give in surveys is of no help when it comes to cultivating curiosity and preventing bad decision-making. And you probably already knew this.

Despite the vast number of answers your leaders collect in surveys, polls and interviews, a 2009 study showed that employees feel that most decisions are beyond their power to influence. And a typical response to a question such as “Do you ever feel powerless to change or influence things at your employer?” was “often”.

You feel powerless because surveys are designed to make you into a respondent—that is, someone who reacts to what others think is important.

By asking questions, on the other hand, you proactively take a position on what you think is important. You get to share your role-specific experiences, knowledge and insights. And by directing your questions at your leaders, colleagues and customers, you contribute to the culture of curiosity, conversations and collaboration your company depends on to succeed.

Your leaders avoid your questions because they feel interrogated

However, questions have a dark side. Even when they come from a good place, questions can feel like criticism. They can feel like demands to explain ourselves, defend our decisions, and even take responsibility for things out of our control.

So, while you’re thinking that you’re asking a simple question, your leaders may feel like you’re questioning them—interrogating them. And that would make most of us insecure and defensive.

Your leaders might not realize that you are asking questions because you want to understand the situation better, want to find out how you can help, are curious, inspired or on the verge of figuring something out and need additional information.

And unless you find a way to not only tell them, but show them that you’re trying to help them solve a business problem, they will continue ignoring your questions or even try to shut you up. 

Three steps for getting your leaders to listen

When you ask questions of your leaders, the last thing you want is to be labeled difficult or resistant to change. So, you need to be strategic about your approach. 

It may sound like a serious contradiction, but it’s important that you don’t start by asking questions directly at your leaders. Instead, do the following:

  1. Start by asking yourself questions about the problems threatening your company
  2. Explore solutions by exchanging questions and answers with your peers
  3. Show your leaders how you can help solve the problems

1. Ask yourself what the most important problem is

The first thing you should always do when your leaders communicate changes and decisions is to stop yourself from asking them a lot of questions about why they’re making these decisions. Because they don’t always have the answers

Instead, listen carefully to what they are saying and ask yourself how the changes and decisions resonate with your experience and knowledge about what the company needs to succeed.

Next, try to identify the questions your leaders (and maybe your leaders' leaders) are struggling with right now. Ask yourself if you agree that those are actually the most important problems for your company to solve. If you agree, let your leaders know that you understand the problems, and that you are happy that they are working on solving them.

Doing that, you’ll show your leaders that you are a team player, and that will make them less defensive the next time you approach them.

If you don't agree that the questions your leaders are grappling with are the most important problems for your company to solve right now, you should still let your leaders know that you understand the problems and that you are happy that they are working on solving them. But instead of asking yourself how you can help solve your leaders’ problems, you should ask yourself why you think other problems are more important and try to identify and describe the one problem you think is hurting your company the most.

2. Explore solutions by exchanging questions and answers with your peers

Once you’ve identified the most important problem to address, ask yourself whether you have any experiences, ideas or know people who might be able to help solve the problem threatening your company.

But you still want to wait before you address your leaders directly—unless they invite you to do so. In this second phase, besides asking yourself a lot of questions, ask questions of your peers—and let them ask you questions. This way, you can work together to explore ideas and discuss and develop multiple possible solutions.

The truth is that transformation isn’t top-down or bottom-up, but most often it happens from side-to-side. In my experience, the most energy, solutions and forward motion usually comes from peers talking to peers.

In this second phase, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to disagree. Make room for it. Friction and disagreement are productive and generative, as long as they’re done with respect.

3. Show your leaders how you can help solve the problems threatening your company

It’s finally time to ask your leaders some questions. First, let them know that you don’t expect them to have all the answers. Then show them that you aspire to the new normal as much as they do by asking clarifying questions about what is already being done to solve the problems. Finally, share your suggestions as to how you and your colleagues can help.

At this stage, your leaders depend on a lot of people making multiple decisions about multiple problems, and they want to know that they can trust you to do your very best—and maybe even drive some of the cross-functional collaboration your company needs.

Remember that your leaders do not have to accept your solution or your help. You might think your insight and ideas are brilliant, but your leaders may be considering hundreds of different options. So be patient. Change is difficult and never clear-cut. In the situation we find ourselves in, it’s far from obvious for any leader where they should be focusing their attention and action.

It’s your job to be curious

Talking to and rallying your colleagues around a problem, working on solving it together and gaining trust from your leaders can result in incredible business innovation. For example, in Denmark, LEGO Factory switched to producing visors for healthcare workers after an engineering staff member approached his team with the idea. 100 LEGO workers signed up to work on the concept and right now, the LEGO factory in Billund makes 13,000 face shields a day for Danish Health Authorities workers.

Similarly, the blended ice coffee beverage Frapucchino was invented by a particularly entrepreneurial Starbucks employee in Los Angeles some twenty years ago. She got her store manager to allow her to test the new drink and it went on to become a cult favorite.

The three steps in nurturing curiosity in your organization is not only vital during a time of crisis. They apply every single day. Leaders will never have all the answers, so it’s your job to ask questions and thereby help them find the right solutions to the right problems.

Like to share something with your leader? It’s Okay Not to Have the Answers might be a good fit.

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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