In many companies, the act of asking questions is looked down upon, or viewed as a waste of time for the people who already know the answer. But failing to ask questions is detrimental to your business and your employees' growth as individuals.

Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas of management consulting and analytics firm Mu Sigma write in Harvard Business Review about how to hone the "lost art of asking questions." In a poll of more than 200 of their corporate clients, Pohlmann and Thomas found those with young children calculated that 70 to 80 percent of their kids' interactions consisted of question-asking. Those same clients said that only 15 to 25 percent of their own conversations consisted of asking questions.

As people get older, they typically stop asking as many questions. When people do ask questions, they are often self-conscious about it, prefacing them with phrases like "this might be a stupid question, but...." In a professional setting, no one wants to be the person asking questions for fear of being perceived as ignorant, or even childish. Employers, they assume, want to promote the people who have the answers, not the ones who ask questions.

"Think back to your time growing up and in school. Chances are you received the most recognition or reward when you got the correct answers," Pohlmann and Thomas write. "Later in life, that incentive continues. At work, we often reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Questioning conventional wisdom can even lead to being sidelined, isolated, or considered a threat."

While many companies might thrive on their employees buying into a certain way of thinking, smart companies look for those employees who ask the most questions, or the people who challenge basic assumptions and don't take everything at face value. Questions can dissolve longstanding injustices, break through inefficient systems, and help to create innovative technology, laws, or schools of thought.

Moreover, Pohlmann and Thomas write, neglecting to ask questions can lead to poor decision-making and jumping to the wrong conclusions. Below, find out how to reawaken the art of questioning to help you steer conversations, solve problems you don't know the answer to, and avoid narrow-mindedness.

Avoid assumptions by clarifying.

Many conversations during meetings or idea pitches turn into an unhealthy competition. When people try to top one another instead of trying to understand what has been said and explore its depths, good ideas can be buried quickly. "Asking clarifying questions can help uncover the real intent behind what is said," Pohlmann and Thomas write. "These help us understand each other better and lead us toward relevant follow-up questions. 'Can you tell me more?' and 'Why do you say so?' both fall into this category. People often don't ask these questions, because they tend to make assumptions and complete any missing parts themselves."

Explore greater understanding.

Many people don't ask "adjoining questions," which can be used to explore how concepts or answers apply to different contexts or issues, Pohlmann and Thomas say. "Our laser-like focus on immediate tasks often inhibits our asking more of these exploratory questions, but taking time to ask them can help us gain a broader understanding of something," the authors write.

Analyze the roots of a problem.

When it comes to analyzing problems, data, or performance, you need to get to the underlying cause or find out how certain answers were derived. This is what Pohlmann and Thomas call "funneling questions," or questions that challenge assumptions and help get answers that explain the root of a problem. Ask about how and where things originated, how a certain analysis was conducted, and why certain things were omitted.

Find the bigger picture.

"Elevating questions" can help your team's narrow focus broaden so you can see the big picture. "Being too immersed in an immediate problem makes it harder to see the overall context behind it," Pohlmann and Thomas write. "So you can ask, 'Taking a step back, what are the larger issues?' or 'Are we even addressing the right question?'" If you are talking about declining revenue or plummeting customer satisfaction, you need to find connections that might be obscured. Ask questions that explore seemingly unrelated factors or trends.

Published on: Mar 30, 2015