Press Release, April 2001

To Ask or Not to Ask: Developing a Question-Friendly Culture

Project management guru Stan Portny says your company's success may depend upon whether employees feel comfortable enough to ask questions.

Does your company have a question-friendly culture?  When you are working on a project, do you feel comfortable asking the head honcho to clear up any confusion you may have?  If you are the manager, do you encourage employees to come to you with their questions - and do you really mean it?

Project management consultant Stan Portny - president of Stanley E. Portny and Associates, LLC and author of the new Project Management For Dummies (Hungry Minds, Inc., 2001, ISBN: 0-7645-5283-X, $19.99) - hopes the answers to all of the above are a fervent yes.  He has seen too many instances in which a manager's "open door policy" has become fodder for cynical water-cooler jokes.

"Sure, there are some company cultures that discourage questions, but these are rare," Portny says.  "In most cases, managers are very receptive to questions and usually have answers and valuable insights they would be happy to share.  After all, it's in everyone's best interest that work gets done quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, many employees don't realize that this is the case.  For various reasons, they assume management is unwilling to listen - and this perception becomes a major impediment to project success.  Opening the lines of communication can make everyone's job easier."

It's true that the breakdown of the rigid old-school business hierarchy has eliminated much employee fear of approaching authority figures.  However, the growing emphasis on "project teams" as a method for getting work done creates the necessity for a whole new level of human interaction.  After all, projects often require that people work closely with employees from other departments, other companies, and in our increasingly global society, sometimes even other cultures ... and questions must often be asked.

Creating a question-friendly workplace is a two-way street.  That's why Portny offers the following tips to askers as well as askees:

If you are the manager or project leader:

  • Tell employees that questions are welcome.  This may sound simplistic, but saying "If you have any questions, I sincerely want to know" will go a long way toward making others feel comfortable approaching you.

  • Always respect the questions.  People tend to clam up if they're made to feel they've asked something "stupid."  Acknowledge the validity of the person's question by saying something like "I appreciate your question, let's explore that for a moment..."

  • Give the "asker" your full attention. Don't address someone's question while you're answering your e-mail or reading the paper.  And don't take a phone call in the middle of the conversation.  Otherwise, the person will think you don't care or aren't listening.

  • Practice active listening.  If someone comes to you asking for a deadline extension, for instance, repeat back to him what you think he said.  Ask specific questions like "Why do you feel you can't get this project done on time?  What is the nature of the conflict?"  This technique clarifies the issues in your mind and helps the other person think it through.

  • Realize - and state frankly - that you can't solve every problem.  If is not your responsibility to do all the work yourself.  If is your responsibility to engage employees or team members in a problem-solving dialogue.  When people are aware of your boundaries, they will make more of an effort to help come up with their own solutions.

If you are the employee or team member who needs answers:

  • Be proactive.  Cultivate the mindset that you will seek out solutions rather than procrastinate or avoid the project in question.  Remember, by asking, you are not "bothering" your manager, you are taking a necessary step toward completion of the project.  Your question will be appreciated!

  • Don't "dump" your question on your manager.  It is not his or her job to solve the problem for you.  Have a few possible solutions in mind before you approach her and be ready to openly discuss them and receive feedback.

  • Ask questions as a friend, not as an adversary.  Yes, there is a huge difference!  Keep in mind that what you are after is a mutual exploration of the issue at hand, not a cross-examination.  Treat your manager with respect and he will do the same for you.

  • As a general rule, don't ask questions via e-mail.  Many people do not write well enough to communicate their real question.  Plus, the fact that your manager can't hear your tone or note your "non-verbal" cues like eye contact and body language can confuse the issue.  If you must pose a question via e-mail, be as clear as you can and follow up with a phone conversation.

Always remember that questions are a useful and necessary tool for learning and making progress toward your goal.

"As the poet John Donne said, 'no man is an island,'" Portny reminds us.  "I think that quote applies beautifully to business and especially to project work.  No one has all the answers; we must rely on the knowledge and expertise of others.  Feeling free to ask questions - and being willing to respond to questions others ask - is the key to positive and productive interaction between team members.  And that is the path to project success."