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17. Someone Else (of Higher Authority or Greater Experience) Will Ask

If you have a question, and it is clear in your mind that it needs an answer, ask! Unless you are a mind reader, it is impossible to know whether anyone else is thinking of the same question or will ever think of the same question.

Of concern to first-level and mid-level managers is their position in the hierarchy. Many questions they hear senior managers ask are good examples of the kinds of questions managers should consider. I have heard a number of mid-level managers express the opinion that they are in no position to ask tough questions.

They explain that their bosses often ask “those kinds” of questions due to their senior positions. The way to think about whether a “boss” kind of question should be asked is to consider this question: Is it important for the business to know the answer sooner or later?

If it is an answer that is needed sooner rather than later, you had better get it out of the way. Also, you need to keep in mind that the question might never be asked by the boss. And then what?

The credibility of the person asking is a secondary, but important issue. This is significant particularly in companies where deference is paid to people who have the battle scars of veterans, or “dirt under their fingernails” so to speak. Questions about sensitive subjects or a question that can produce a potentially embarrassing response should require younger or less-secure managers to pause.

Although important, is the question important enough to cause harm to yourself or to others? Or if your question will not be taken seriously in a public setting, such as a meeting, consider a private communication—by phone or in person. E-mail has a habit of being misinterpreted and should be avoided if possible under these circumstances.

People emerge into positions of higher responsibility, greater influence, or leadership over time. In many cases, their emergence is a direct result of the questions they ask. Answers are important, but the question plays a vital role. People who ask good questions are the people who learn to ask good questions.

One research scientist at a high-technology firm is often invited to sit in on business reviews, planning sessions, and many management discussions. He views most of these requests as a waste of his valuable time. However, the use of his time in this way is best for the business.

His perspective is so unique and his questions so insightful, he has become an integral part of the management process of that business in spite of the fact that he wants no part of managing. However, he asks stinging questions. So unconcerned about who he embarrasses and feeling impervious to any threats that may be directed his way, he focuses his laser thinking on issues he sees. The way he figures it, he cannot lose. The sooner he exposes the “fraud of the argument,” as he likes to refer to management discussion, the sooner he can get back to the lab. He also does not care whether he is fired. His pension is already assured, based on his length of service, so he keeps it up. The net result is that it is always assumed that he will be at meetings, and this causes an appropriate amount of pre-meeting preparation.

Everyone wins in this setting. Management wins because the best information possible is likely to be presented. The presenters benefit because they will have done their homework, not wanting to be embarrassed in an open forum.

So in at least this one example, people have come to rely on “the other guy” to ask questions because in this organization, they have an official “other guy.”

Someone else may or may not ask. If the business needs to know now, now is the time to ask. If the circumstances are not quite right, defer the question, but under no circumstances should you allow an important question to remain unasked.

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