I recently read a survey which said an average 5 year old will ask 65 questions a day - and a 45 year old may ask as few as five. As a parent of young children that doesn’t surprise me. My daughter greets me most early evenings with a long list of questions because she’s curious for knowledge. Her latest, “Daddy, why do giraffes have such long necks?” is a great example. Instead of just accepting that’s how it is, she wants to know why.

At that age our enquiring minds need answers, we ask questions because we are interested and we care. It was a good question that needed a good answer. “They need long necks to get to their favourite food on top of the trees,” I replied. Her approving nod told me that I’d succeeded, but it meant something more too. By listening to what mattered to her and answering, she continues to ask questions. With my HR hat on I might even say she’s engaged.

There are certainly similarities. One of the benefits of engaged employees in my experience is that they ask lots of questions. They want to know why things are done in a certain way, are curious and question the status quo; this leads to them having the desire to change things for the better.

This was very much the case at Virgin; in fact, we’d even try and assess levels of curiosity at interview by giving candidates a tour of the building to see what questions they’d ask. Google is another organisation that’s well known for encouraging questions. CEO Eric Schmidt says “we run the company by questions, not by answers”. Google welcomes questions to top executives each week which sets the tone that anyone can ask anything of anyone else.

Sadly, not every organisation acts the same way which is possibly why that survey showed such a drop off in questioning as we get older. Some organisations have a culture that stifles the freedom to ask questions, and the business suffers as a consequence. If employees don’t feel comfortable asking “why are we doing it this way?” then they won’t find it easy coming forward with good ideas. It might just be easier to keep quiet. Even worse, if they don’t feel their views are valued by the organisation it’s a slippery slope towards disengagement and exit.

However, when organisations embrace questions it encourages an engagement culture of ‘we’ rather than ‘management versus employees’. If employees are involved in asking questions that resolve problems they will feel more engaged in implementing that change, especially if they have been the catalyst in finding the solution themselves. How much more motivating is it to be praised for thinking about the business than being told “that’s not how we’ve done it here for the past 20 years”, or that dreadful innovation killer, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

So, how do you encourage your organisation to develop a questioning culture?

If you are a leader, it has to start with you. If you ask more open and exploratory questions of the business (e.g. how could we do things differently, how could we turn a set-back into an opportunity, etc.), you’ll encourage others to think and contribute. You could even ask employees directly, “what do you think we should do?” You might be surprised at how this trickles down and where some of the best suggestions come from.

You should also support the outcome of good questions by creating a sense of shared responsibility for the solution. The worst outcome is when someone spots a problem and, as a reward for their question they are told to ‘go away and fix it’. This will only add to their workload and make them wonder, why bother? When responsibility is shared, solutions are shared and the cycle of questions leading to improvement is not broken.

A questioning culture is not easy to implement, it has to emerge through encouragement and being seen to act on outcomes. It has to be believable and not a series of slogans or posters. You are asking employees to question the business and the answer you’ll sometimes have to give might be “I don’t know”. It can be a risk, but it’s far better to encourage involvement and ownership than stifle engagement. You probably won’t be asked why giraffes have long necks, but you may be asked a question that could transform your business for the better.

- Richard Roberts, Employee Engagement & HR Consultant at en:Rich HR

With decades of experience in HR, Richard is passionate about helping organisations create engaged, inspired and productive teams with a positive, values-based culture.Richard set up en:Rich HR in 2009 and develops and deliver services in employee engagement, people expertise and employer branding.

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