Money Talking

At Work: 5 Questions You Shouldn't Ask

May 11, 201612 min
For companies to succeed and grow, it's all about asking the right questions.
That's how Warren Berger, who wrote about this topic for the Harvard Business Review, has made his career — he's a journalist and author of the book "A More Beautiful Question." But really, he considers himself a professional "questionologist." (Don't question the word, just go with it.)
Before we get to how not to ask questions, Berger has advice for how to ask good ones. 
"Try to make sure your questions are rooted in actual curiosity. To me, that is what determines a genuine or authentic question," he says. "Questions that are rooted in curiosity usually don't cause problems. In fact, most of us are flattered when someone is curious about what we're doing or why we're doing it. But it can very easily be the case that questioning comes off as veiled criticism."
[Click on "Listen" to hear Berger talk through these points with Money Talking host Charlie Herman.]
Berger suggests that to avoid those critical sounding questions, start by framing questions in a positive, forward-looking way to get people thinking. Otherwise, businesses always end up looking backwards, examining everything that went wrong and looking to place blame.
So without further ado, five questions Berger suggests you are better off not asking:
1. What's the problem? Berger says this question puts people into a defensive position. "It focuses everyone on the negative." Instead, he suggests looking at things the company is doing well, and asking how success can be applied to weaker areas.
2. Who's at fault? "Usually there's a lot of blame to go around, and we don't necessarily need to pin it on one person," Berger says. He calls this line of questioning a way of attacking.
3. Why don't you do it this way? While a quick tutorial is sometimes necessary, Berger advises against confining your employees to your personal process. "You really are inhibiting the growth of those people and you're not going to get the most out of their creativity."
4. Haven't we tried this already? "It gets over-used in the business world," Berger explains. Sometimes outside factors will change, and stomping down in ideas, also stomps on creativity. The better question to ask, he suggests, is "If we tried this now, how might we get different results?"
5. Where's our iPad? When a company launches a successful product, it's easy for other companies to panic, scramble and even express bitterness. Berger says that, in this case, it's best to ignore your impulses. "It suggests to people that you're really just in the business of imitating another company." 
In the end, Berger admits that his advice is partially to stop being so blunt and direct with your line of questioning. Which sounds counterintuitive, but isn't necessarily so. "You don't have to think of it as dishonest when you soften a question, or when you make it more positive," he says. "You're simply trying to articulate an issue in [a way] that people are a little more comfortable with."

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