"I have six honest serving men
They taught me all I knew
I call them What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who"
So wrote Rudyard Kipling.
We are taught that questions are useful, that they can be divided into two types, Open and Closed, both have their uses.
However, I would suggest that we neither value not encourage questions enough. How often have you heard the phrase "Are you questioning me?!" It is usually spoken aggressively and said to quell what is thought to be rebellion in the ranks. If this phrase isn’t spoken out loud quite as often these days, I would suggest that it is a frequent internal response.
I think that there are two fundamentally different sorts of questions:-
‘Type A’ questions are usually asked by a peer, a superior or a maverick who is throwing things open. These questions relate to fundamentals such as strategy and direction. ‘Type A’ questions are intrinsically challenging on both the intellectual and emotional levels. They can make us feel aggressive as they take us into unsafe territory; the unknown.
‘Type B’ questions are more often asked by someone seeking to enact a decision already made. We are much more tolerant of these.
Leaders, or alpha males/ females, tend to have risen to their place in the system not only by virtue of their capability and hard work but also by a certain tendency to fight off competition. I would suggest that this makes them intrinsically intolerant of ‘Type A’ questioning.
However, ‘Type A’ questions are essential to bring about any significant change. Companies that value innovation tend to have a culture where this type of thinking is not only tolerated but rewarded.
Maybe it is time to take an honest look in the mirror and ask yourself how well you respond to ‘Type A’ questions and who you have around you that will ask them. Every leader needs someone who can challenge their thinking and this kind of open, fundamental questioning is a very powerful tool.
A good non-exec will do this, as will a good consultant or facilitator, but this way of thinking is something that is deeply rooted in a person’s personality, at least as much as a learned skill.
In days of old, when knights were bold, kings kept jesters in their court so that there was someone who felt safe to challenge their absolute power. It took a brave man to question the person who could utter the words "Off with his head!" I know that modern companies are different from feudal courts but bosses still wield great power over the rewards, security and prospects of those under them.
If no one around you is questioning you then they are probably afraid to do so. Also compliance is so much easier; it is not only safer career-wise but also we avoid the other bete noir ‘being wrong’!
Do you have a jester in your court? It is time to seek out and reward this kind of input to help ensure that the right kind of changes are happening in your business.
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God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Reinhold Niebuhr