Leaders, There Really Are Some Stupid Questions!

Over this past year of presenting the concepts of Reality Based Leadership at conferences nationwide, I have often heard leaders unconsciously, routinely spouting off cliches that not only remain untested but that are absolutely false. Worse yet, they are encouraging a huge waste of scarce team resources. 

A favorite cliché of mine to bust right in front of their eyes is, "There are no stupid questions."

There are no stupid questions!? Seriously, that statement might have been true for a short time when you were 5 years old and the teacher was a scary big person and your confidence was a little low. We used this statement because we wanted to get you over that hump and encourage you to participate in class. Now, it’s simply a workplace cliché. You are now 45 and it is a core expectation that you participate and select your questions more wisely. 

In fact, to ask any question uncensored, can even be irresponsible. With the wave of a single question, one employee can cost the company thousands of dollars when they do not even have signature authority to spend $10 on behalf of the company. A single stupid question can commission resources in the form of meetings, research, analysis and discussions that are a total waste of time, talent and focus.  Key resources are wasted seeking an answer that doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter, or reinforces the erroneous belief that others are the source of our problems. 

How does the cliché, "There are no stupid questions," live on? Well, too many leaders repeat this cliché in a measly attempt to get their employees to feel "comfortable" and to encourage employees to ask any question – at any time. These same leaders lament that their people focus on the wrong things, that there is too much conflict and drama in their workplaces, and that they are not getting the results required.

They don’t even realize that the source of their pain is their own encouragement of questions of any type. They go on to complain that they are pulled away from their main roles of developing people and driving the team for results by constant interruptions – usually from employees asking, "Do you have a minute?" Followed by a really stupid question such as, "Why do things keep changing?" or "Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything?" or "Who thought of this?"  

In my opinion, these are really stupid questions and here’s why:

•    There is no answer to these questions – really.
•    Even if you could speculate an answer – it adds no value to the situation.
•    They all imply blame.
•    They fly in the face of personal accountability as a concept, let alone a core expectation.
•    They are focused on other people, who, last I checked, are outside of the control of the employee. 

To spend a single second of thought or action on such questions is a complete waste of resources, period. 

How to know a stupid question when you hear it? A question that begins with "Why," "Who" or "When" is pretty suspect, especially if it concerns human behaviors. The words "Why," "Who" or "When" are only valuable when beginning questions that seek information on a process or logistical detail of a plan.  Human behavior is simply not rational, although it can be very predictable. 

When you hear yourself or someone else asking one of these stupid questions, for the love of resources, move quickly to help steer their efforts into asking smarter questions which have actual answers, and that, if found, lead to actions that truly deliver results. Help to re-write stupid questions.

Here’s how: 

1.    Change every "Why," Who" or "When" to either a "How" or "What."
2.    Follow with the words "can I."
3.    End the smarter question with some action word such as "do" or "help." 

Let’s practice the aforementioned stupid questions:

•    "Why do things keep changing?" becomes "What can I do to get so great at change that I am unphased by it?" or, "How can I help drive the change?" or even, "How can I quickly align with the change?"
•    "Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything?" transforms into "What can I do to get the information I need?" 
•    "Who thought of this?" will become "How can I best support this?" or the even more proactive, "How can I provide better information to my decision makers?" 

Now these are amazing questions filled with personal accountability! These smarter questions all have many potential answers, all of which will move the team forward toward results. To answer these questions is to focus efforts on what matters. 

With a smart question in hand, work with the employee to specifically create a list of possible answers.  Write them down and presto! You now have a list of simple instructions of what the employee can use their time and talent on that will truly help drive forward, create results in spite of the circumstances and add major value. Looking for a development plan for your employee? You just created one. 

Now you know: We lied to you to help you when you were little. About there being no stupid questions. About a little man in your chimney over the holidays. And about a certain rabbit in the spring. Help us correct the situation and stop spreading lies in the workplace and spread the truth instead. There really are very stupid questions.

And remember,

You rock and Cy rocks! 

Lead on my friend.

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1 Comments

  • Chris Reich

    I agree completely. Not only are there stupid questions, there are questions designed by immature people to disrupt morale and the flow of productivity. You point that out nicely.

    I deal with this stuff all the time. Companies will spend money on 'team building' and other assorted internal trainings and still permit the subtle distribution of the same poison that destroys cohesion and hinders productivity.

    Add a part 2 to this piece: There are also stupid answers. Answers to properly phrased, genuinely based questions should never include cliches. I get sick of night school junkies spouting off the wonders of LEAN, Supply-Chain management or Total Quality when those same people are the primary obstacles to getting sold product out the door.

    In addition to rephrasing questions, I would ban the use of all cliche verbiage in answers. The asking of "What can I do to move orders out the door more smoothly?" should not be answered with "That would require an analysis of our supply-chain to sales process relationship." Too many business people have learned from politicians how to talk without actually saying anything.

    Chris Reich, TeachU.com & BizPhyZ.com