There are plenty of reasons to cultivate the habit of asking questions in the workplace. Asking the right questions at the right time can support your professional development, spark new ideas, and surface issues before they become major problems.
However, this isn’t a skill that comes naturally to all of us – and many of us have experienced environments that put us off asking questions as often as we should.
As a result, you might not be asking as many questions as you could be. In turn, this may mean you are missing out on opportunities to discover vital information, grow your understanding and knowledge, and build stronger professional relationships.
In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the common reasons why people don’t ask enough questions in the workplace and suggest some ways you can overcome them.
Why We Don’t Ask More Questions
Most of us are aware of at least some of the benefits of asking questions. We may occasionally forget to do it, but we see the value. So, a lack of understanding of the power of curiosity is rarely the main reason that we don’t ask enough questions at work.
If we know that asking questions is a valuable habit then, what holds us back from practicing it? Most often, this comes down to one of these five factors – or several of them.
1. Lack of Confidence
Asking questions requires a certain level of vulnerability. It often means admitting that we don’t know something or haven’t understood. And it also means sticking our heads above the parapet to speak up when we might prefer to be silent.
As a result, lack of confidence is one of the biggest reasons that many of us don’t ask enough questions. We worry that we will be seen as stupid or incompetent, and we feel exposed by the process of revealing a potential area of ignorance to other people.
Interestingly, the opposite is often true. Far from making people lose faith in our abilities, asking questions shows that we are interested and listening carefully. And not asking can have disastrous consequences, especially if it means we misinterpret tasks or information because we failed to ask clarifying questions.
As with so many other things, becoming more comfortable asking questions is often simply a matter of practice. It may feel challenging at first, but the more you speak up, the more you will see that asking questions doesn’t make other people see you as incompetent.
2. Fear of Giving Up Control
Another reason many of us don’t ask enough questions at work is that we’re afraid of giving up control. We take responsibility for a task or an area of work and think that asking other people questions about it will jeopardize our ownership.
Although this can affect people at any level of the office hierarchy, it is often seen in managers and leaders who fall into the trap of thinking they need to have all the answers. They want to appear always calm, confident, and in control – and are concerned that asking questions might puncture that illusion.
Again, despite our worst fears, asking questions doesn’t mean giving up our professional competence. In fact, managers can lead their teams better when they admit they don’t know everything and give their subordinates opportunities to shine by showing off their own knowledge and expertise.
Even when we do know the answers, it can still be valuable to ask our direct reports what they think. They may bring insight to the table that we hadn’t considered. Knowing that their opinions are respected and listened to can help us build stronger professional relationships – and supports our colleagues with their own professional development too.
If you are finding the idea of admitting you don’t always have the answers challenging, take some time to think about the leaders you admire. Do they assume they already know everything, or do they ask questions regularly?
Consider too how you may be blocking other people from expressing their ideas and sharing their knowledge if you never ask them questions. Considered from this angle, we can see that asking questions is a generous act – one that shows respect for others instead of compromising our own control.
3. Busy Workload
A more prosaic reason that we often don’t ask as many questions as we should is simply that we are just too busy – or at least think that we are.
Asking great questions takes time. It means listening to answers – sometimes in-depth answers. It means asking follow-up questions and listening to those answers too. Sometimes, it might mean asking more than one person. Often, it results in extra work.
From time to time, asking the right questions may even lead to a major overhaul of a process, project, or other area of work.
It is no wonder then that many of us let our daily workload serve as an excuse to not ask the questions that we should. After all, we might worry that we won’t have time to deal with the answers.
There’s a temptation as well to simply carry on with the status quo. After all, if everything is rolling along more or less happily, why should we upset things by asking questions?
While this attitude is understandable, it is also short-sighted. If we let the day-to-day distract us from asking the questions that lead to change and growth, then we stifle innovation and creativity. We may also fail to uncover problems that need addressing.
If you are finding that your daily workload is stifling your curiosity, start small. Set yourself a target – perhaps it is just to ask one question in every meeting you attend this week. They can be simple clarifying questions or ones that invite someone else to expand a little on a though or idea.
With luck, you’ll begin to notice how asking questions can enrich your working life and bring you closer to your colleagues. With this in mind, it will be easier to make asking questions more of a priority in the future.
After all, asking questions may be time-consuming, but we also need to ask ourselves what the cost of not asking them could be.
4. Misplaced Respect
Sometimes we ask questions to expand our knowledge and understanding. But questions can also play a vital role in challenging others to think differently and try new approaches.
This is another area where fear can hold us back from asking questions. We might worry that we’ll come across as rude or disrespectful, especially if the person we are asking is more senior in the office hierarchy. Many of us were discouraged from asking too many questions of authority figures when we were growing up, and that attitude can follow us into our working lives.
There’s no doubt that asking questions in the worng way can indeed come across as rude. If we ask in a way that shames the other person or implies that they are incompetent, they will rightfully react poorly.
However, we can ask questions in a way that is both respectful and challenging. Tone and phrasing can do a lot here, as can the situation. If you think a questions might be sensitive, you might choose to wait until you can speak to the person one-on-one, instead of asking in front of other colleagues. Or you might put your question in writing, so the person has a chance to think fully before responding.
Even if you don’t quite get the format and tone of your initial question right, you can recover a lot by listening carefully to the answer and asking follow-up questions. You can also explain your thinking to show why you are asking.
Ultimately, respecting other people means also respecting their ability to answer challenging questions. While no one likes to be put on the spot, we also don’t grow if we are always in our comfort zone. If you let politeness keep you from asking relevant questions, you prevent both your colleagues and yourself from learning.
5. Workplace Culture
This final reason for not asking questions in a professional setting can be harder to overcome. Sadly, some workplaces simply do not have hte kind of culture that encourages curiosity and questioning.
Fortunately, this is becoming less common as time goes on. The idea that we should never question the way things are done is now seen as old-fashioned and outdated in many companies. But that doesn’t mean that curiosity and inquisitiveness are always as centered as they should be.
If you find yourself in this situation, it is time to consider what role you can play in re-making hte company’s attitude to questions. Even if you influence doesn’t extend beyond your own team, you can still demonstrate how asking questions can benefit everyone.
If you are a manager, you can demonstrate this in two directions. Create a relationship with your direct reports that makes them feel safe to ask questions, no matter how big or small. At the same time, model asking questions of people both above and below you in the hierarchy yourself.
You may not be able to change the whole company. But you will get those who work with you directly thinking more about the power of questions, and that can only be a step in the right direction.