What’s Wrong With A Questioning Attitude?
As a key attribute of High Reliability Organizations (HRO), what’s wrong with a questioning attitude? One the surface it would seem like this is something we would encourage all of our employees to do. Certainly they ask such questions because they seek legitimate answers, right? We wouldn’t want to discourage that behavior, would we?
Think about when our children were in the 3 to 5 year old range and they would continually ask us questions because of their natural, innocent inquisitiveness. This was cute in the beginning as we watched them learn and grow. And then day after day the questions would come and come. As they got older the questions became harder and harder to answer.
Remember the questions like,
Why is the sky blue?
Where does wind come from?
How hot is the sun?
How do birds fly?
There are a ton of these types of questions we can think of as parents (please comment on others that come to mind). As the adult, we couldn’t say we ‘don’t know’ because we want our children to think we know everything.
In my case, when I would run out of answers, I tell them to go ask their mother, she knows more than me:-) In many of these ‘asking why’ cases, we answer them until we don’t know the answers anymore. Then we get frustrated with the questioning.
Does this really change in our adult, work lives? Don’t we have some employees that are always asking us questions and we get frustrated with them? I am a firm believe that Pareto’s 80/20 rule applies in these situations. I think that 20% or less of our employees consume 80% or more of our time to manage. Some ask questions so much, because they want to be disruptive. But in my experience that is the minority. Most are just naturally inquisitive people who want to learn.
But like as a child, we tend to answer our employees questions until we don’t know the answers anymore. When we get to that point, the questioning becomes annoying and we tend to get frustrated with the questioner. All of sudden the questioner is becoming a ‘trouble maker’ and our behavior towards them may reflect our dismay and disdain.
Why do we do this? When we get to these points of questioning, intellectually we know the question may be valid, but emotionally we get upset because we do not know the answers ourselves. Being the boss, we cannot let our subordinates know this potentially embarrassing fact. Here are some examples that come to mind for me:
1. If the procedure says to do the task this way, and I do it that way and a failure occurs; why am I being disciplined?
2. When a failure occurs because I bypassed an alarm, why are you only disciplining me when everyone has bypassed that alarm for years without consequence (in my On The Job [OJT] I was taught to do that)?
3. Why do I have to create workarounds to a flawed procedure that is in place, in order to effectively do my job? Why doesn’t leadership fix the organizational system for us so we don’t have to workaround these bad systems?
All of us can tell our own stories from experiences like these (please do in Comments below), where we tend to take out our emotional frustration on the questioner, simply because we lack a credible answer.
This questioning attitude has deep roots in effective Root Cause Analysis (RCA). This is because a true RCA will drill down past the decision-maker and strive to understand the reasoning for the decision. We often think we are solving our failures by blaming the one who made a poor decision and disciplining them. This could not be further from reality. This is actually counter-productive and risks recurrence of the event.
Unless there was willful malice in the decision (sabotage, which is very rare), we should be interested in why well-intentioned people felt the decision they made was the right one, at the time.
When drilling down on ‘why’ we make bad decisions, we tend to uncover very sensitive and political issues in our organizational systems. When we question about these latent types of root causes, many get defensive and take it personally (like we are blaming management for the flawed system). Often this is because they 1) either know the answer and feel honesty will reflect badly on them, or 2) they simply do not know the answer and are embarrassed to admit it. The goal is not to find ‘whodunnit’, but to fix the system.
We should certainly encourage questioning attitudes and be acutely aware of the reactions to our questions and why people may be behaving the way they are. While we may not like the ‘truth’, we will not be able to progress unless we can accept reality…please encourage such a questioning attitude. Also, comment on this article using your own stories where questioning attitudes have been suppressed and why.