The Audacity of Asking Questions

Only in organizations where collaboration and questions are encouraged can progress be made.

I love TED Talks, and I found another fascinating one last week. Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant gave a great presentation posted to the TED website and app in January 2017 about the three types of people who make up most workplaces.

Takers – People who are self-serving in their interactions with others. People for whom the first thought in any interaction is WIIFM (What’s In It For Me)? These people are often easy to identify in the workplace, and reassuringly Adam presented data that demonstrated that while the self-serving Takers often do fly high, they crash hard when Karma catches up with them. Takers, he says, do not represent the best performers within any workplace.

Givers– The opposite of Takers, these are people who are selfless in their interactions. These are the people whose mantra is “What can I do for you?” and they mean it. These types of people often suffer in modern workplaces, and they tend to cluster at the lowest end of the performance spectrum, often because they are too busy doing favors for others to get their own work done, or they are too honest with their potential clients when trying to sell them something. But surprisingly, Adam’s research found that Givers were also the highest performers in any workplace. Clustering in the top and the bottom of the performance spectrum, Givers often suffer themselves but make their organizations better through increased mentoring, collaboration and teamwork.

Matchers– This is most of us (56% according to Adam’s research), who fall somewhere in the middle between Givers and Takers. Matchers also fall on a spectrum, with some closer to Takers and some closer to Givers. Matchers will modify their interactions and priorities based on who they are working with and organizational cultural norms, working from more of a Quid Pro Quo type of arrangement. Put Matchers with Givers, and the Matchers tend to behave more like Givers and collaboration thrives. But put Matchers around Takers and things change (Case in Point: Uber). The Takers, Adam’s research shows, fall at the hands of the Matchers, who often see it as “…their mission in life to punish the hell out of the takers” in a quest to maintain justice in the universe.

superhero-534120_640Which tends to imply that people like myself who would fall inside the Matchers cohort are superheros taking down the evil villains, but I digress…

In order to build an organizational culture that helps protect the Givers, your most valuable employees, from things like overwork and burnout, Adam noted that the culture needs to be one in which employees are encouraged to ask questions and ask for help. You need to take away the stigma from being able to ask about things you don’t know, or seek help from others. Only then will your organization succeed, because questions = collaboration.

I have seen this stigma against asking questions so many times across the various organizations I have worked with. To ask a question is to prove incompetence. Or, asking questions of people who are on the Takers end the spectrum is seen as a threat. “How dare you question my authority and my knowledge by asking questions!” the Takers exclaim. In organizations where there is fear to ask questions, there is no progress either.

I’ve experienced this myself when I was shadowing my first Operational Audit. I have never been the type for whom asking questions was difficult. I was excited for this new aspect of my job. Connecting the dots between the education we provide to our new clients and any operational or data issues they may have later, I figured, could help us improve our training. During the audit I had the audacity (the audacity!!) to ask our client a question relevant to the training I had provided them when they converted after a natural opening arose. The client gave me some useful feedback, and I made notes to bring these issues up later with the team.

During a later troubleshooting session, I had the audacity to ask another question during the back-and-forth as we were trying to pin down the cause of a workflow snag. I was trying to assist in solving the problem, and at the same time determine if our training methodologies needed some adjusting to prevent this issue in the future. The person I was shadowing said nothing to me at the time, and I was over the moon at having helped contribute to the process and helped the client solve an issue.

That is until my annual performance review came around. You see, that day I had the misfortune to be shadowing what Adam classified as an Agreeable Taker; someone who will be nice to your face, but turn around and stab you in the back. In his talk, Adam notes that these people are the most dangerous because they are the hardest to spot. Because I was a relatively new employee and did not know the person I had been shadowing that well, I had no idea of the minefield I was walking into. When my manager asked the manager over that department to allow me to shadow another Audit as part of my training, the Agreeable Taker threw me immediately under the bus for daring to open my mouth during the previous Operational Audit. The Agreeable Taker refused to allow me to shadow with anyone on the team.  As a result, that part of my training was delayed another full year while we waited for an Operational Audit to be assigned to another department, which I could then shadow for training purposes.

I was livid that I was being punished, and my career being held back, simply because I had asked questions. I suspected the reason behind it was because I was asking questions that the Agreeable Taker either could not answer, or questions that should have been asked prior to the audit but hadn’t been. Either way, my questions were an apparent threat to the Agreeable Taker’s reputation, and I was suffering the consequences.

To prove Adam wrong, as a Matcher I didn’t make it my mission in life to take down the Agreeable Taker. In fact I have successfully worked with the Agreeable Taker on subsequent projects. I follow the logic that Takers tend to destroy their own careers, they don’t need my help. But I am now much more careful to protect myself and others who may be involved in those projects who are Givers. They need my help and I will help protect them and show them how to protect themselves so that collaboration can help lead us to progress.

I still ask questions to this day; in fact it is one of my favorite activities. I don’t shy away from asking tough questions, even to managers or members of the C-Suite, if it helps our business position and would help our clients. I don’t see it as a vulnerability to ask questions; I have made a lot more progress, advanced more projects and learned a lot more by simply asking questions. But Givers need more protection to ask these same kinds of questions, and the questions are what make progress. I agree with Adam, all of us need to do what we can to encourage asking questions.

It’s a fascinating TED Talk.  Go check it out and let me know what you think!

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