September 10, 2023

Want to Stay Relevant at Work? Ask Great Questions

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote: "Every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”

There may be no dumb questions, but there sure is a shortage of questions—especially at work. In a recent study, 49% of employees reported they don’t regularly contribute new ideas at work because no one asks them questions. Busy and perennially behind, it’s hard to pause and think of the right question, let alone listen patiently for an answer. But questions are a surefire way of making people feel needed or valued—and, particularly in today’s volatile workplace, that goes a long way.

Consistently asking good questions may also preserve your job—by making you a critical collaborator with AI. The value of AI and large language models depends on our ability to extract the right information—by asking the right questions. In fact, recent researchsurfaces the value of this man-machine partnership. Armed with good questions, you can unlock AI’s ability to help you do your best and most productive work.

Asking good questions is not as easy as it may seem. A good question requires you to step out of your comfort zone and be willing to be wrong. It requires vulnerability and genuine curiosity. With practice, this skill can be your secret weapon at work. Here's why:

  1. Good questions are a powerful tool for learning and innovation

    Lazy questions that merely confirm information keep you in the past or present and have far less impact than open-ended questions designed to invite exploration and discovery. Designing new-to-the-world solutions requires us to ask broader, more diverse questions, stretching ourselves to consider new alternatives.

    Becoming more future focused may be as simple as shifting the nature of the ask: from “how” or “how much” to ”what if” or “what might be.” One useful tool involves asking “why” five times in a row, intentionally probing the root causes of a thorny issue. These more open questions are inherently riskier, forcing you to reckon with what you don't know. MIT researcher Hal Gregerson calls these “catalytic” questions, inquiries that will help us become more innovative, especially as we get better at using AI. Ideally, AI can handle the rote retrieval that otherwise bogs us down, leaving the creative human brain to learn and innovate. As AI increasingly allows us to be curators instead of creators, it opens the door for combining and rapidly testing new ideas in even the most technically complex industries.

    But asking better questions is not only about managing the right AI prompts. It's about your personal learning and development growth, extending your understanding and expanding your creativity. In its latest Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum identified analytical and creative thinking as the two most important workplace skills, with the need for creativity outpacing all other skills. Tomorrow’s problems require you to ask new questions, regardless of the nature of your work. Growth, competitiveness and productivity all depend on continuous learning fueled by continuous inquiry.
  2. Good questions deepen your relationships with other humans

    Questions have the remarkable power to deepen social connections, even getting perfect strangers to fall in love. Psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues famously identified 36 questions that brought people together so quickly that several of his experimental subjects got married. It's not the questions themselves, but the idea that asking each other increasingly personal questions creates vulnerability, and mutual vulnerability fosters closeness.

    Clearly marriage isn’t a workplace objective, but there’s something very productive about the power of mutual vulnerability. Interpersonal closeness helps workplaces become more innovative and experimental, because closeness builds trust. Gender matters here: research finds that women are more comfortable asking questions in social situations while men are more inquisitive in professional contexts. But we know that social sensitivity and interpersonal connection power the smartest teams. Good questions, whoever is asking, strengthen the skills that help people work better together.

    So how do we find the right workplace-based questions? The best questions are what scholar Edgar Schein calls humble questions - open queries that require you to let go of what you think you know so that you can be open to new thoughts or insights. They are most welcome in a psychologically safe environment where mistakes are expected and failure isn’t feared. These genuine questions signal curiosity and care for what another person has to say, and build relationships based on mutual respect and awareness of each other’s skills and strengths. It’s at the intersection of these strengths where organizations find their best ideas. And good questions can unlock them.
  3. Good questions help you grow and improve

    As you perfect your skills of inquiry, don’t forget to turn them inward. So many of our ideas are founded on baked-in assumptions and biases that we don’t always recognize in ourselves. Challenging our own assumptions requires us to consistently question what we believe is right, to slow down long enough to revisit or rethink our conclusions. It’s about literally interrogating your own decisions. Ask yourself what might change if the opposite of your beliefs were true, or what you might be getting exactly wrong about a vexing problem. Coupled with a commitment to explore diverse approaches, this self questioning ensures better reasoning in uncertain times.

    In this age of easily accessible information, the ability to decipher fact from fiction has become a critical skill for the future. In a multi-year study of thousands of high school students, Stanford University researchers found that two-thirds struggled to separate news stories from ads, even when the ads were clearly marked “sponsored content.” And studies further show that younger generations are less concerned about misinformation than older adults. With AI-generated news sites growing at breakneck speed, the line between fact and fiction is blurry. It won't be enough to rely on school skills to combat the proliferation of misinformation. Continually honing your self-questioning skills, triangulating new facts and verifying public sources, is a critical skill for keeping your job and future proofing your career.

In the Emmy-nominated film Tár, a famous orchestra conductor plays a section of Bach’s Prelude in C Major that evokes a voice asking multiple questions. Pointing out the varied rising tones, she asserts, “it's always the question that involves the listener, never the answer.” The question is more interesting.

In uncertain times, the question is not only more interesting, it’s more important. Yesterday's answers won't solve tomorrow's problems. The questions you ask frame the directions you take, and open your aperture to new ideas, no matter how disruptive they may be. There are no dumb questions, only short sighted answers. By asking plenty of broad and novel questions, you become a super learner, connected with others and able to navigate fact from fiction. There is no better skill to have for understanding the world and our future. Period.

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