In Culture

Why don’t people like asking questions? In short, many people are afraid to look incompetent while some simply don’t feel comfortable asking. Keep reading to learn more…

Asking questions visual

Don’t like asking questions? You’re not alone. Keep reading to learn more!

Do you ask for help at work?

The research shows that people are afraid to ask for help at work. Often times, people are worried they will look incompetent or they simply want to show others that they are “self reliant”. However, research also shows that people who ask questions are actually often seen as more intelligent. So how do we wrestle with this dichotomy? Why don’t we ask questions but at the same time feel that it is valuable when others ask questions? 


Consider this situation…

You are relatively new at your job. You’ve only been part of the team for a few months but you have started to make some friends. While the company may be new to you, the job itself is not. You’ve been a [marketer, project manager, sales analyst…] before at other companies. 

You’re confident in your abilities and typically know exactly what needs to be done. However, occasionally there are things you have questions about. Maybe you don’t know how to use some software you’re unfamiliar with, or maybe you simply need to know how to access your health care benefits. Regardless of the question, would you feel comfortable speaking up? Typically, people are very hesitant to ask questions; an interesting phenomenon that we will talk about later on in this blog…

Now let’s reverse the situation… Let’s imagine that you have worked at a company for 10+ years and are very comfortable with your job responsibilities and your coworkers. Now, imagine that the most senior colleague in your group retires and is replaced by a new employee. The new employee is experienced and very competent. She came highly recommended from another company and everyone is confident that she will be an asset to the company. 

As she is getting acclimated, she often comes to you and other colleagues to ask for help. Would you feel comfortable helping her? Of course! Do you think she is bad at her job or incompetent because she has some questions? No chance! In fact, it’s likely that you see her as more intelligent since she is asking really important questions. 

Now reflect on this: you are happy to answer another employee’s questions but you are still hesitant to ask questions. Why is that the case?! 


Why do we avoid asking questions?

Oftentimes people are uncomfortable asking questions because they think that their coworkers will view them as incompetent. Alternatively, people refrain from asking questions because they want to be seen as self-reliant. (We do live in the United States where individuality and independence are highly regarded personality traits after all…) Unfortunately, another problem is that many companies do not cultivate an open culture. Many employees across the country feel that their company looks down on question-asking and expects you to figure out the answers yourself. 

Interestingly, people are often afraid of a “social debt” if they ask for help. As Wayne Baker explains in an article in the Harvard Business Review, people are often concerned that they will have to return some huge favor in the future if they ask a question now. While research has shown that “reciprocity” is a very strong instinct for humans, you can use it to your advantage. 

Baker suggests that offering frequent help up front will actually result in more people helping you later! So rather than worry about the debt you could be in, be proactive! Become a giver within your workplace and you will definitely see the reciprocity come back around when you need help in the future.


How to ask effective questions

Now that we’ve established how important it is to ask questions, let’s talk about some pointers for asking questions that will give you the results you are looking for. 

Have you ever asked a question and gotten an answer that didn’t really help you? Or maybe someone asked you a confusing question and you did your best to answer, but you weren’t really sure if it actually helped the person. We’ve got a simple acronym that can help you ask better questions that yield the results you are looking for! 


Be S.M.A.R.T.!

This isn’t a new concept and you may have seen it before, however it is truly effective! When you ask questions in the future, do your best to be S.M.A.R.T.! (You can also be S.M.A.R.T. when setting goals, here’s a link to learn more…)

S: Be Specific!

First, be sure to nail down all of the details surrounding your question. Think about the who, what, where, when, how of the situation. Who do I need help from, what expertise do I need from them? 

Instead of asking “Can you help me with my health care benefits?” Try being a little more specific with something like, “Can you help me figure out how to login to the employee portal and show me where I can access information about my health care benefits?”

M: Make sure it’s Meaningful!

This is where you keep in mind why you need help. Are you simply trying to take work off of your own plate or do you truly need information? Be authentic!

A: Action oriented!

People are usually happy to provide help, but if they don’t know what to do to help you then you’re not going to get the results you hoped for. When you ask for help, try to be specific about real actions the person can take to help you.

For example, instead of asking, “can you help me with this report?” try asking “can you bring me the Smith files so that I can finish this report?”. The second question gets to the exact action you need help with. Without the details, your coworker may not understand exactly how to help you and may be hesitant to oblige.

R: Keep it Real/Relevant!

It is important to keep your coworker’s capacity in mind. Are you asking for too much or is it something that a coworker could realistically accomplish without upending their entire day?

T: Last but not least, it has to be Time-bound!

It’s pretty likely that when you need help, you need it now, not next year. For example, pretend you are an accountant and you need to ask a coworker for a client’s important tax documents. Without a time constraint, your coworker might forget or take their time providing the information without knowing that it could incur late fees for your client! Instead of asking “can you share Jane Doe’s 2019 withholding records?” try asking “Can you share Jane Doe’s 2019 withholding records by the end of the week? I need to file her taxes and don’t want her to incur any late fees!” 

It’s not me, it’s you…

Unfortunately, sometimes the problem comes down to the culture within a company. It can be really uncomfortable to be the only person asking for help when you work at a company that values self-reliance or often repeats the phrase “figure it out yourself”. If you found this blog because you believe the culture of your company needs improvement, you’re in luck! 

Give and Take Inc. is home to the Reciprocity Ring, an exercise developed by Wayne and Cheryl Baker that breaks down the stigmas surrounding asking for help and helps employees create new networks within an organization. Throughout the course of the exercise, people learn about the logical barriers we often face when we need to ask questions. Afterwards, participants learn strategies for asking effective questions. Finally, all participants come up with an individual request to ask of the group. 

While simple, this exercise packs a major punch. Companies that have participated in the reciprocity ring have reported major time savings which means money savings! As we like to say, the Reciprocity Ring is transformative — and informative. Not only will you learn solutions to your issues, but you’ll also learn more about your colleagues and co-workers. Organizations also report that this exercise helps them to build their community and strengthen relationships across the board. 

“Reciprocity is the key to creating social capital, and amassing social capital is the number one way to achieve success in business and life . . . If you want to catapult your business into higher and higher realms of success and dramatically improve employee performance, I can tell you from experience that the Reciprocity Ring is the answer.” – Ivan, Reciprocity Ring Participant

Time for a reboot!

If you feel like your company’s culture could use a reboot, schedule a free demo with us! We know that the reciprocity ring effectively fosters a giving culture within organizations and we believe that it can help your organization too!

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