We talk and write about the elements of culture needed to promote innovation and agility. But, when it comes time to outline in detail the specific actions to take to change culture and to promote organizational transformation, more needs to be said about the power of questioning the status quo, even when it feels “personal.”
Peoples’ reluctance to “question” impedes progress. When searching for answers to the question of how to bring about effective change and how to cultivate a culture that supports change, I felt let down by what I found. Then I asked myself, why?
In “Want to Win? Don’t Repeat History, Make It!”, I wrote of how “human nature” weighs down our organizations, making it difficult, nearly impossible, to change because “it is in our nature to seek solace in stability. It is why we seek consensus. And it is why we shy away from the kinds of transformational change touted by those folks advocating for data driven decisioning, digital processes, and customer focused delivery.”
I wrote how our “natures” won’t let us question who we are and what we do with the kind of depth and urgency needed to promote the kind of change that is needed. And I posited that “in business, unfortunately, people tend to see their organizations as what they are rather than “what they can or should be.” And they quietly fear having to question their organization’s reason for being. Because of this, they don’t look outside themselves and their organizations for help in defining that future-state organization. They see questions as challenges to their “current state” rather than as opportunities to succeed. And they don’t work at change. But they should, if they wish to succeed, and not just survive.”
When I wrote about our unwillingness to court change in our organizations, I made several suggestions, including: “Stop working toward consensus. Stop working to get to yes. Instead, start debating real alternatives to what you are and what you do today. Start accepting the challenge to change.”
But, taking on the challenge to change requires asking and answering difficult questions that often start with “why,” and sometimes focus on the person in charge.
Successful organizations will be those that embrace questions (including re: leadership). It is my experience that people are too often afraid to ask questions—whether from years of conditioning within an organization or plain old human nature. Whatever natural curiosity they had as children tends to get discouraged over time. We tend, because of human nature, to assume the status quo is the “acceptable” way to go, and we are not interested in trying to challenge most things, especially if things seem to be going along just fine. And most employees just try to do what is asked of them and stay out of trouble, believing that people who ask questions may be sticking their neck out.
Obviously, getting people to start asking questions — getting them to use fresh eyes and act on that new perspective — requires effort and energy. It means changing what may have been part of a process for years.
And, I get it. Change is hard. It may mean choosing the path of heavy resistance, instead of the path of least resistance. But when people get into the habit of asking questions (especially asking “why”) and know they won’t get their head chopped off for asking, things get better.
Leaders show the way. The best way to teach is by example — to “show” and not to “tell.” When people see you asking questions (questions about how and why things are done, not questions regarding people’s individual intentions and/or productivity), they begin to feel comfortable answering your questions, and they start asking similar questions of others. And those people, in turn, start to realize that challenging things and offering information about what is really going on is something that is encouraged. When you are willing to admit in front of everybody that you don’t know a particular answer, that makes others understand that they too can admit they don’t know. This promotes information flow and will improve the health and productivity of your organization.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? So why does this reticence, this reluctance to ask questions, occur? Why is it so hard for leaders to know what’s going on in their organizations? And why is it so hard for people in organizations to take on the risk to change – both themselves and their work environment? I suggest it’s because we don’t interact with each other as fully as we think, so we don’t fully understand what is possible, what is allowed, or encouraged.
While we don’t think we actively discourage challenging the status quo, we don’t really promote it either. And the absence of that message is still a message, just as making no decision is actually making an important decision — a decision to do nothing.
Learning to ask, and accept, challenging questions is actually hard. If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely asked yourself if I’m right about the situation – that people ask too few hard questions – of themselves and of others. You likely have said to yourself “I both ask and encourage the asking of hard questions.” And I’m sure you do, sometimes. But I wouldn’t be so sure that you regularly encourage and accept the “hardest” questions that can and must be asked. Why do I believe this? Because promoting the kind of questions that bring about successful change requires leaders to allow for questions that challenge their role and their authority. At some point, you have to prove to your people that “all questions are welcome.” You have to prove that questions about hierarchy and authority will not be taken “personally.”
Uncomfortable questions need to be asked. So, if you are working to bring your culture forward, to enable your team to ask and answer the questions that will propel your transformation and promote success, I encourage you to allow all questions to be asked, and not to settle for a workplace where questions are encouraged or discouraged based upon whether they are perceived to be attacks on the hierarchy, rather than attacks on the status quo. In other words, leaders must promote questioning, allowing people to push through, to keep asking, to get answers, even when those questions become uncomfortable.