Questions Impact Culture

Does (y)our approach around asking questions have an impact on culture?

A couple of years ago, I facilitated a discussion on another forum centered around the questions spurned from a previous post : No Capes.

It was interesting to enter into dialog with folks both within and outside my profession around the topic of people (or ourselves) swooshing in to save the day. One of the teammates who joined was not from my function / specialty and he had some pretty interesting things to share from his perspective.

As someone “newer” to the world of work he quickly expanded on the “swooshing/no capes” dialog to a pretty passionate diagnosis around what he saw as lacking in his current work culture. :

the thing he found most lacking was connection and relationship,

particularly from leader to employee.

He used the conversation to rail against what he saw as a huge deficit in the environment he encountered upon joining his company: my shorthand for this is:

He saw people failing to see each other for who they fully are and what they bring to the table.

He shared a powerful story of a colleague who he felt was brilliant on multiple levels but was left sitting “on the shelf,” underutilized, because, according to this teammate, no one ever bothered to find out just how amazing and talented they were.

This got me to thinking about our larger culture and asking myself how valid some of these criticisms are.

From my knothole, I see us changing. I see what he is describing as our legacy and the world of work I grew up in more than the workplace/family/community of today, but we are each having our own experience and I have no doubt that his opinion is not isolated.

Ironically, anyone who knows me will tell you that the person I’m describing sounds a great deal like me in many respects. His concerns are certainly concerns I’ve expressed and felt over the years about other “hidden gems” around me at various points in my career.

All that said, this space is not for ranting. This space is for encouragement and discussing ways that we can grow, so let me share what I think we can do about this person’s concern if you agree with him (i.e. that this is an area we can all improve upon.)

Ask questions.

You might be saying “really John, that’s your answer, ask questions? I already do that! I already ask lots of questions and they are really good ones too!”

I bet you do. You probably know lots of great questions to ask to get to the heart of whatever the problem is you or your friend/teammate/client/family member are facing or to help the other person see how to fix something.

However, those aren’t necessarily the questions I am suggesting we ask.

Before I share what kinds of questions we should consider asking, let me share my history with questions.

Many folks, who grew up like I did, did so in a world where questions were for testing.

Questions were for showing how brilliant you were. Questions of our leaders were careful to be “safe” and meant to compliment or agree with their direction or maybe even get a few “at a boy/girl points” on the board. In that world (and maybe in this one?) questions can be scary.

Now let’s talk about a different kind of questioning and questioner. Frank Blake, the uber-successful former CEO of Home Depot (the one that grew that company by 100 billion +.)

Frank misses one thing the most about his former job as CEO. He misses the dinners he used to have with 12-15 of his hourly employees throughout each of his years at that company. Why? Did they have great food at those dinners? No. Did he learn the secret dirt on what his managers were doing like some kind of “secret boss” show? No.

What Frank Blake misses most was hearing people’s personal journeys. Although Frank is known as a master question “asker,” he only had one question for his folks at those dinners:

“Tell me about your journey.”

Frank attributes those 100 billion dollar gains to investing in people by asking questions of people that show that you care about them. He believes that:

“if you invest in people they will invest in you.” Frank Blake

Frank asserts that if you build trust and then ask why, the answer can’t be a simple “fluff-filled” “everything is great!”

Frank has many more tips about questions in this conversation he had with Cal Fussman- please listen if you get a chance.

Another great way to hear more from Frank and his leadership journey is to watch this 2018 interview with Tim Ferriss.

So what does asking questions have to do with helping a hidden gem get recognized? What does it have to do with impacting culture?

It is simply this, I believe foundationally the reason we don’t recognize these folks and their many talents is because we don’t see them. It is because we don’t invest the time to truly recognize them and get to know them. It is because we don’t learn enough about them to build a meaningful connection. I believe that questions create culture and they do that because fundamentally:

People want to be seen as more than the surface level image and brand they present to the world.

My questions for you are these:

  • Do you believe that one of the most dynamic things you can do as a leader is ask questions that tell people you care?
  • Are your questions like those (old world) queries I cited above (the testing / showing your “stuff” kind)? or…do they show you care for the person?
  • Are your questions sincere and genuine?
  • Are your questions about connection?
  • If so, how did that look this past week?
  • What questions do you want to ask and of whom next week?
  • How do your respond and reward those around you who ask you questions?
  • Questions that show you care, take time to ask and fully listen to the answer. Who are you going to invest caring question time with next week?

I’m certainly no #FrankBlake nor is the “newer to work” podcast participant at the beginning of this story who shared so earnestly with me, but (and I hope he forgives me for speaking for him) ……we both hope we gave you some good questions to ask yourself.

I also hope you find this valuable and remember if for any reason you don’t…it is all just food for thought. I want to see your soar!


I would love to hear your questions, thoughts and comments!

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