Question the answer – That is how my Twitter bio reads. One of my followers, in the kindest way possible, asked me if it should be ‘Answer the question’ instead. A quick chat over a few DMs left us both laughing at how it appears like a typing error even though it is not.
It does seem counterintuitive though. What do you think it means? Is it to question authority, cause an upheaval or assert dominance? You can find the answer at the end of the post.
But first, let us look at some figures. According to a survey published by Harvard Business Review, only 24% employees reported feeling curious in their jobs and about 70% said they face barriers to asking questions at work.
The figures appear even more astonishing when compared with their poll that revealed that children ask questions 70-80% of the time they are talking versus adults who only ask 15-25% during a conversation. That is a third less than children. So what gives?
A few years ago while I was visiting my sister, I was tasked with the job of looking after my niece for the day. Her relentless ‘why’ to everything I said or did was enough to drive me to say the dreaded, and mostly unhelpful, ‘Because I said so!’ by the afternoon. However, this was not an isolated case. Toddlers are natural learners and are born with the impulse to question the answer. As we move from home to classroom to the workplace, we tend to lose this curious mindset while learning rules, discipline and systems. In fact, we subconsciously learn that it is better to give answers than ask questions – whether it is in the classroom or for exams, quizzes, interviews and conversations. We are expected to have the answers.
Albert Einstein famously said, ‘The important thing is to never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.’ He may have been talking about the ability of the mind to contemplate the mysteries of the universe and science but curiosity remains a critical forerunner to innovation in all spheres of life.
Drawing a parallel with the workplace, a curious mind is often indicative of a critical thinker as it signals the ability to imagine better outcomes and a desire to change the course of the future. A person who questions is a person who will grow, overcome barriers and lead to innovation.
However, building a culture of curiosity is easier said than done. Workplaces are often competitive with people wanting to outshine others. Moreover, time is at a premium so there may be hesitation to raise questions. Add to that, the fear of judgement from colleagues for coming across as being less informed, intrusive, or even arrogant. It is human nature to want to be liked and avoid such unflattering labels. Breaking the mould is seldom easy, leading to suppression of our natural desire to question.
For people to feel confident to think out of their comfort zone, workplaces need to create a safe space that allows for healthy debate and discussion. It also requires confident and trusting leaders who are not threatened by someone challenging the norm, and instead possess the ability to imagine and the readiness to accept that there is always room for improvement. But most of all, it warrants the acceptance that somebody else may have a better answer than us. It is this open mindedness that is the first true step towards both creating a culture of trust and cultivating a curious mindset.
At TBS, we have plenty of opportunities to stay curious. Building better is encouraged through explorative work such as professional learning communities and action research projects. Our processes are collaborative and involve stakeholders at each level to ensure all voices are heard and different points of view are explored. Robust feedback systems help us look inwards, reflect, review and improve, and a strong professional development programme ensures we are continually learning and evolving, applying what we learn at work. This, and a whole lot of open mindedness and encouragement from our leaders, allows us to remain intellectually curious.
On the flipside though, one could argue that constant critical evaluation can slow down processes and decision making. That is why knowing what and when to ask remains an important part of the process. Asking pertinent questions requires you to first ask the right questions of yourself – What problem will it solve? What is it about the current system that doesn’t sit right with me? What is the intended outcome? What might success look like? Further, choose the right time, the right place and have the right intention. Do not question with the intent of hurting someone.
If you have come thus far reading this, you would have realised that the correct answer to the question we discussed at the beginning is none of the above. What Question the Answer truly means is to keep an open mind and have the courage to ask questions that matter.
To quote Albert Einstein again, ‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’
- The Business Case for Curiosity by Harvard Business Review
- Relearning the Art of Asking Questions by Harvard Business Review