Asking questions

Careful What You Ask: The Three Hidden Powers of a Question

Asking questions is part of being Jewish – which is great for me, because I’ve always asked a lot of questions. When I was growing up, my parents patiently responded – often with more questions, which was sometimes annoying but probably also helpful.

At Leading Edge, we love questions, too. We design surveys full of questions, like our annual Employee Experience Survey and ongoing Pulse Surveys, to support organizations in becoming even better places to work.

But lately I’ve also been reflecting on the dark side of questions. The wrong question at the wrong time can be damaging. Questions are powerful, and with power comes responsibility.

We might think, what could be more open and less absolute than a question? A question isn’t an argument or pronouncement from on high – no harm in asking, right? But questions are much less innocent than they seem.

Here are three hidden powers of asking questions. These powers show us what can go wrong if we misuse questions – and what can go right when we remember that every question carries with it more than just the literal meanings of its words.

1. Questions tell as much as they ask. The questions we ask can reveal our attitudes; our assumptions; our priorities; our focus; how much we know; what we may not know; how much we care; and more.

When we design the Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey, we do our best to balance the experience of the people responding to the survey, the leaders’ ability to understand and act on the data to make the organization an even better place to work, and our understanding of broader trends and needs in the field. Each question reveals a bit about our beliefs and priorities, but the story a question tells may not be what we intended. Here’s an example: when the Leading Edge team creates demographic questions on a survey, we format the answers as multiple-choice options. In the past, after the specific options was an “Other” option for typed responses. The multiple-choice format makes results much easier to sort and quantify. But that format also means we’re displaying an official list of demographic categories, a canonized set of “normal” or “expected” demographic options. We strive to make these options broad enough to allow everyone taking the survey to find themselves in the answer choices, but in the rare cases in which people didn’t see themselves in the response options, the “Other” label could be taken as implying that they are “other,” outsiders, people who don’t belong, afterthoughts, or exceptions. That we didn’t intend this message or consciously think it to be true doesn’t solve the problem. We shaped the question, and the question had a story to tell. This is why we have moved from “Other” to “Prefer to self-describe” for all such situations.

2. Questions can shape experiences. Psychology and sociology both have a rich literature on “framing” – essentially, how different external signals, cues, prejudices, narratives, and superficial differences can radically alter how we might experience the same object or event. Framing effects can include anything from how the first number spoken in a negotiation conversation shapes what offer someone is later willing to accept to how we consider information differently when it’s told to us by someone wearing a white coat. Just as a literal frame isn’t a painting, but rather tells us what part of our visual field is a painting, a cognitive frame is something that tells us what to notice.

Asking questions can have unintentional framing effects. Let’s say an employer asks her team members a set of 50 questions that are all exclusively about productivity. That survey not only tells the story that productivity is all the employer cares about (power #1) but will likely also affect the attention, behavior, and experience of team members in the weeks and months that follow. Maybe they’ll produce more. Maybe they’ll resent it and produce less. Maybe they’ll have a host of different feelings and reactions, but the point is that the organization has now influenced the employees’ stories in the direction of being more centrally about productivity, whether or not that was their intention.

On the positive side, we can use framing effects on purpose. Recently, a funder asked me how they can encourage organizations to prioritize employee wellness without being prescriptive or (at this moment) giving extra dollars. I responded that just asking grantees about wellness will encourage organizations to prioritize it and think about it differently.

3. Questions can set expectations. Whether we’re talking about the workplace or a personal relationship, the fact of asking always implies something about the relationship between the asker and the askee. Sometimes it means we really care, really want to get involved, or at least want to be there as a supportive listener. Sometimes it means we’re just making small talk and we have no intention of building a real connection. In both cases, and whether it’s two people talking or an organization surveying, the most awkward moments often come when someone asks an insincere question.

Often, leaders ask us if we think participating in the survey makes sense for them in a given year. We typically respond by asking if they intend to take action on what they learn. If you know that you’re unable or unwilling to do anything about the answers to a survey, then asking will only be making an implicit promise you don’t intend to keep, and this may not be the best time for a survey at all.

For organizations that do take the Employee Experience Survey, we recommend leaning into the implication that asking means caring, since implying that intention can help even before the results are fully collected. That’s one reason that we include a question in the survey that asks whether employees agree with the statement, “I expect something will be done as a result of this survey.”

So those are three powers of asking questions: giving information, shaping experience, and setting expectations. As you can see, these powers can be used for unintentional evil or for good.

Let’s be careful what we ask. Let’s treat questions with the serious consideration, and even caution, that they deserve. But then let’s embrace them as not only a Jewish cultural heirloom, but as a versatile, complex, and useful tool of the communal trade.

Amy Born is Chief Strategy Officer at Leading Edge. There’s still time (until February 24) to register for Leading Edge’s Employee Experience Survey 2021.