Questioning: A Lost Capability among Executives

This blog post is not meant for those who are content to let their $110,000 MBA diploma hang on the wall as an indication of a job well done.  Nor is it designed for those persons who feel that now that their education is complete, they have all the necessary tools for success.  I encourage managers and executives to read and participate in this posting if they feel that there is a next step in the educational process...one that is more critical to success than showing off that graduation tie!

We are bombarded with information at a near constant rate. Managers face information overload challenges at their organizations.  They have to contend with information that is emitted from a wide assortment of agents and objects, and this information might arrive through various information channels and devices. Consequently, it is impossible to inspect and process all the information one receives. Some information nuggets receive attention and are carefully considered, while other nuggets might get lost (or are even purposely ignored), and yet others, might be acted on without enough consideration.

What is troubling to me is how frequently managers assume that information that stems from the external world is right or appropriate for their organizations. Often this gets exhibited as follows: a manager gets his recent issue of Harvard Business Review and skims through it during a business trip (of course, only after the manager has exhausted the batteries on the laptop). The manager reads a few articles, finds one or more them to be interesting, and then without much questioning begins to think about how to duplicate practices or approaches described in their own organization. Most managers take a lazy approach when it comes to evaluation of information from external sources. Consider the last time that you really took the time to evaluate information coming from an external source (e.g. a consultant or a recently released business book that touts the next buzzword) with the same amount of care as information that comes from your direct reports. Much of this lazy approach, in my opinion, can be linked to the MBA mills. During MBA programs, degree candidates are rushed through the fundamentals of accounting and finance, given tours of the latest practices in human resource management and information systems, and spend their time working through team and trust building exercises. These are all nice, but do not teach managers the art and science of questioning. Moreover, in some course and management approaches, questioning, especially, the questioning of authorities and authoritative sources is frowned upon. This is common in disciplines such as accounting and finance, where students are made to drink from the fire hose in terms of the terminology and techniques. Student learn to marvel at external information, especially information published in the so-called authoritative sources, rather than to critically evaluate it.

Most managers with whom I speak admit that they have a long way to go in terms of harnessing their questioning capabilities. Key aspects of a questioning capability include:

1.      Knowing how to develop questions for a given context

2.      Knowing when to ask questions

3.      Knowing how to evaluate and process answers to questions

4.      Knowing how to develop an effective, and efficient, questioning process that is refined, and optimized, on a regular basis

Being busy, or overworked, or just being fearful of consequences, are not legitimate reasons for questioning. To retain the human and intelligent aspects of organizations, one must question. Questioning prompts us to seek clarification, act intelligently and mindfully, and promotes constructive discourse.

I would like to hear your thoughts on questioning. Do you ask difficult questions of external information? What are some reasons why you are less critical of information that come from external versus internal sources? What challenges do you face in terms of asking difficult questions? Do you think questioning is a lost capability within current enterprises?

2 replies
  1. Jordan Eschler
    Jordan Eschler says:

    It is certainly an intellectual shortcut to evaluate information based solely on the source, in business or in any decision-making endeavor. However, legitimacy within a constituent readership is naturally viable for commercial gain. An example: women's magazines -- which update the same 10 articles in perpetuity with the newest product suggestions, fashion trends, and pop culture references -- have the same symbiotic content/advertising relationship with cosmetics companies that business publications maintain with large consultancies.

    Publications such as the HBR are the Cosmopolitan magazine of the business world: instead of supermodels, we have the Fortune 100. The bite-sized nature of a typical HBR piece, consumed regularly, could ostensibly inoculate managers in the field against the messy feedback of low-level employees. It is a delicate skill to apply the conceptual lessons of an education in management while considering the contextual information presented by one's colleagues and direct reports - something, I believe, that requires a genuine love of working with and respect for people.

    Adding to the difficulty, managers may not even hear from immediate reports until a particular problem cannot be communicated without frustration or distortion. Since managers are human as well, it is unsurprising that an article from a respectable business publication would spark the solution center in a manager's brain, leading to an imperfect response in an amalgam of buzzwords, problem-solving, and innovation. We all want to be winners, but it is difficult to be a winner in the face of a real logistical, operational, or structural business problem.

  2. Kevin Desouza
    Kevin Desouza says:

    Jordan -
    Thanks for the comment. I love your comment - "Publications such as the HBR are the Cosmopolitan magazine of the business world: instead of supermodels, we have the Fortune 100. The bite-sized nature of a typical HBR piece, consumed regularly, could ostensibly inoculate managers in the field against the messy feedback of low-level employees." I hope that organizations will recapture the importance of creative discourse among its employees.
    Cheers,
     Kevin

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