In business and in life, there are no stupid questions.
We hear this cliche phrase early in our lives--maybe by a teacher or a parent. And yet, many people spend the first however many years of their adolescence and young adulthood subconsciously believing this to be true. I'm sure all of us can remember a time when we were younger and we asked a "stupid question," and got made fun of for it. And although we didn't realize it at the time, we internalized that feeling and learned not to do it again. I tell a handful of these stories in my book, All In.
Ironically, this is what ends up separating entrepreneurs and go-getters from the stagnant and unfulfilled.
Every successful entrepreneur I know asks stupid questions.
That's because no question is "stupid" if you don't know already the answer.
I have been in plenty of situations where someone has said something, and instead of asking them to explain or clarify what they'd said so that I could learn, I would let it pass because I didn't want to sound stupid. On an individual level, this is counterproductive because it prohibits personal growth. But where this really starts to reveal itself as a root problem is when it manifests in your company's culture.
Here are three ways you can keep this bad habit from infiltrating (and ruining) the way team members work with each other:
1. Encourage others to ask questions by asking questions yourself.
One of the big mistakes leaders of organizations make is they think, since they're the "leader," they can't ask the people they manage questions.
This is exceedingly false.
A huge part of leadership is showing that you are, and continue to be, open to learning. You want others around you to feel like it's safe for them to ask questions, talk through mistakes, and collaborate with other team members. You can tell people to do this until you're blue in the face, but employees learn best by watching and seeing it in action. So if you want to foster an environment where people can ask questions without feeling stupid, then you need to show them how.
2. Ask for direct feedback.
I remember in my earlier years as an entrepreneur and leader, I was told by people that my direction wasn't clear.
At the time, I didn't necessarily know how to ask for direct feedback in this department. To be honest, I probably avoided asking because I didn't want to look "stupid," or have people think I couldn't figure it out on my own. But this is a perfect example of something most leaders struggle with, and would have been helpful for me to know sooner. Something can be so clear in your head, but unless you learn how to give others the information they need (in the way they need it) in order to execute, both parties will be left in the dark.
The only reason anyone even pointed this out to me was because I had created a culture where they felt comfortable asking stupid questions. They came to me and said, "We don't know what it is you're talking about. Can you clarify?"
That taught me a big lesson.
3. Take the time to explain what happens if clarity is not achieved.
I'm sure we've all experienced this situation:
You give a group of people directions. You tell them to come back for final approval once they've finished the assignment. And then when they return, the end result looks nothing like what you had in mind.
The reason this is such a pervasive problem in companies is because employees (and sometimes even the leaders giving directions) don't take the time to truly understand what they're working toward. And I believe there are two reasons this happens. First, no one wants to be the one to ask "the stupid questions." And second, they don't understand how the repercussions for not getting clarification: the time wasted, the missed expectations, etc.
Instead of someone saying, "I don't understand," they go off and start working on a project, making guesses about what they think they should be doing. This is a big culture issue for many companies, and a major time waster in your business--and a problem that, once engrained, becomes very difficult to fix.
So, as soon as possible, show people it's OK to ask for clarification.
There are no stupid questions.