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Insight Blog

Read the latest thinking from the crossroads of marketing, insight and technology.

Developing a Question Oriented, Not Answer Oriented Culture

Who? What? Where? Why? When we are children our inquisitive little minds question everything, we constantly annoy our parents with a multitude of questions, which usually resulted in the irritated response of “because… it just IS what it IS, Sammy!” regardless, we keep asking and we keep learning.

As we grow into adults, we develop a reluctance to ask questions for many reasons - maybe we don’t feel it’s the ‘right time’ to ask the question, the gap in conversation didn’t quite appear, we think our question is silly and everyone else knows the answer, so should I, right?

As a former mathematics teacher who was bombarded with questions on a minute-by-minute basis, I can fully appreciate that no question, however silly it seems, is worth left unresolved. Without creating that fundamental base layer to our understanding, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to build on this and adapt to new problems. Worse still, we end up making decisions based on extremely limited or misguided information, resulting in our initial fear – getting something wrong!

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As we grow into adults, we develop a reluctance to ask questions for many reasons, but in a working environment, it is essential to create a culture where we encourage everyone to ask more questions more often.

Therefore, in a working environment, it is essential to create a culture where people feel comfortable to ask questions. Allowing staff to feel like they can ask questions immediately puts them at ease, it helps them acknowledge that there isn’t an expectation to know everything. This gap in knowledge doesn’t reflect on their capabilities, it simply highlights an area that maybe wasn’t explained in full detail in the first place. We aren’t flying solo, we’re in a team of people working together and sharing knowledge to create the best possible output.

Identifying the Corporate Mindset

So, how do we implement this work culture? First off, we have to challenge the mindset that questions mean incompetence, when actually, research shows people who are inquisitive are generally judged to be more intelligent and engaged by others. Carol Dweck would argue that mindsets come in two forms, a ‘growth’ mindset and a ‘fixed’ mindset - in a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits, they are ridged and cannot change; they are likely to believe that talent is inherent and effort is not required, their talent leads them to success.

Alternatively, in a growth mindset, people believe that their learning grows with time and experience, they develop talent through hard work and with the help of others. Growth mindsets are more likely to ask the ‘silly questions’ and attempt new things, this is because they have less fear of failure; they are able to learn from their mistakes and use this as a tool to learn and advance next time round. Fixed mindsets are more reluctant to appear like they ‘don’t know’ something - they usually take failure to heart and so to them, this is a reflection of a huge character flaw. The growth mindset is what needs to be promoted within a work environment. If you want some tips on how to create a growth mindset and understand the wider benefits it brings, check out this article here.

How to Encourage Questions

Now we’ve acknowledged that inner voice of self-doubt and explored how mindset can impact our inclination to ask questions, let’s think about how we can actually get people used to asking questions in the work environment. There are a few methods you could use to do this, but I thought I would mention one of my favourites: Question burst!

Brainstorming sessions are a commonly-used technique, with the goal of identifying a vast range of possible solutions, once mapped-out options are narrowed down this process helps achieve the ultimate solution. However, Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, has suggested flipping this concept on its head, he suggests “question burst” sessions, where staff think only of questions around a pre-selected problem for a certain amount of time. Give the group a target for how many questions they should ask, let’s say 50 is the target, they may struggle around question number 25, but challenging them to dig deep, this allows them to voice all the ‘silly’ questions they may initially be reluctant to say, as well as exploring more complex questions with further thought. After collating these questions, there can be some reflection time to narrow down the key questions. This helps understanding which questions are most relevant and provide us with the greatest benefit.

Asking questions can also be made into a fun activity, the 20 Questions game is a classic crowd pleaser, answer a question with a question. You could encourage staff to experiment with these games for some light relief, or help give them a goal to provide more of a focus. Another tip - end every meeting with a question, sometimes repeating back the information and actions you understand to have come from the meeting can uncover areas of misconception.

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There are no 'good' or 'bad' questions, but that myth is damaging both personally and professionally to each individual employee - and that damage affects the businesses they work for too.

What are ‘Good’ Questions?

As we strive to create that open and collaborative work environment where people can ask away, let’s take a moment to remember… the skill of asking questions is actually the very foundation of the industry we work in! As researchers, we all know that if we ask ‘why’ multiple times, we get better insights, we get a fuller understanding of the individual; their wants and needs.

The difference is, in market research we’re often pretty confident that we know how to ask a ‘good’ research question, mainly due to the fact we ask these questions to participants all day long. So, what’s the takeaway of this? For me, this highlights that practice makes perfect. The more we ask, the more we figure out what questions are essential, relevant and in essence ‘good’.

So, my nugget of advice for 2020: be confident, ask as many questions as you can (silly and otherwise!), and embrace the unknown. Because whatever your pesky little questions are, in all likelihood, Dave, Bob and Sue sat on the opposite end of the table are also dying to know too.

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Samantha Nicholson

Written by Samantha Nicholson

Samantha takes a multidisciplinary approach to analysing quant and qual data, using her background in mathematics and psychology to draw out in-depth, accurate insight. Her communicative skills and creativity enable her to break down complex datasets and present them clearly to clients, helping them understand and make informed decisions.

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Topics: Insight Innovation, Employee Engagement, Business Strategy