Inquiring Questions

One of the case studies I use in my work involves a Canadian banker who was posted to Mexico to manage his bank's operations there. You can imagine the attitude of the local workers when this guy shows up. It's scary enough when a new boss parachutes in from corporate headquarters - Will there be big changes? Layoffs? - but this new boss wasn't even Mexican. So the banker in question started out with a team that was decidedly skeptical.

Both psychology and neuroscience have explanations for this.

The psychological explanation is that human beings form strong impressions of other people within seven seconds of meeting them. This is the famous

"first impression" that is so important to get right, because it can be so hard to change afterward.

If we see someone struggling with their job, and we immediately judge the reason to be the person's inaptitude, then we're going to consider that person a substandard performer for a long time afterward.

But what if that person's manager did not effectively communicate what the job was, or provide the circumstances for succeeding in it? Our sticky first impression has now become yet another challenge for that worker.

From the neuroscience perspective, humans think that their worldview comes from their observations, but that's backward: our worldview tells us how to interpret what we see. In one study, subjects were shown a photo of a bear and informed that "a photographer shot this bear in Alaska." Respondents interpreted that statement according to their own predispositions.

Creative types wondered about the camera. Nature lovers wanted to know about the type of bear. Anxious people visualized a dead bear and a smoking gun.

If we put these two human tendencies together - forming fast first impressions and projecting our own worldview onto others -- then the dynamics behind the Canadian banker story become clear. The Mexican employees looked at him and their first impression was of a foreigner who had little or nothing in common with them. Their worldview told them that he was no doubt sent to their branch of the company to do something they would probably not like.

Fortunately, the banker looked at his new team and saw a group of fellow human beings with emotional energies that could be the basis for trust and cooperation. He also knew how to tap those energies using s deceptively powerful management practice: inquiring questions.

One of the fastest ways to get someone to open up to you is to ask them authentic questions about themselves. We all love that attention, because it's a chance to be authentic ourselves.

Our brains release chemicals that make us feel more trust, an essential requirement for us to take the next step and become loyal. And loyalty was what the Canadian banker was going for.


At first he simply asked his employees about their lives and their interests. He quickly realized that many of his employees cared passionately about futbol - soccer - so he began inquiring about the sport. Initially, his employees gave him short answers, but as he sustained his curiosity they opened up and explained the nuances of the game and the teams they cared about.Soon the people who worked for him really were working for him.

They were more willing to make suggestions that they would have kept to themselves before. Why? They had good reason to believe their manager was genuinely interested in them, so they actually started to care about him, too.

There's a lesson here if you manage or lead people. You're going to come to conclusions about the personalities of people on your team within seconds of first meeting them - that is, without hardly any actual experience to back up the impression.

Not only that, those impressions are going to be strongly colored by your own personality, your personal history, or your belief system. For example, you might have an underlying assumption that older workers are slower to pick up new technology, or that millennials have a sense of entitlement.

The media propagate these stereotypes so constantly that it's easy to assume they're true of everyone in a category.

So how likely is it that you really know the person or understand where they're coming from? How likely are you to know how best to communicate trust and accountability to that person? How likely are you to know how to make that person feel emotionally safe to channel their energy into positive, more productive behavior?

Once we understand this whole picture, it's not hard to understand why so many people say their workplace is screwed up. Pretty much every person is looking at everyone else with some level of preconception and misconception.

The sense of emotional safety we have at home and with our friends is largely missing, because few people feel that anyone at work really knows them.

So feelings of trust, loyalty, and willingness to cooperate don't develop, and the team's overall capability is held back.

Even when we take the time to consider people as individuals, we may come to the conclusion that we just don't like them very much. Maybe they're abrasive with others or like to stir the pot with office gossip. Maybe they remind us of someone we don't like.

Yet they are on the team, and we have to work with them. If we let our current view prevail, we'll just be grudging about that situation and never even look for common ground or shared qualities ... and that worker's potential to contribute to the team will remain just that, potential.

The best leaders work to correct this situation using every interaction they have with people. They come from the stance of being genuinely interested in people, even people they don't immediately like.

Vanessa Van Edwards, who investigates human behavior under the rubric

"Science of People," tells a story about feeling awkward at a college social event. She goes up to one of her instructors and says, "I don't know how to make friends with people, I don't know how to start conversations."

The instructor turns her around to face toward the people in the room and says, "Everybody here is an interesting person. Find what's interesting about them." It must have worked, because if you watch Van Edwards on You Tube today it's hard to imagine she was ever awkward about anything.

The point of the story is that you can do the same thing with people on your team: become interested in them in a way that dissolves separation and awkwardness, and replaces it with emotionally safety.

You might be wondering, "Well, how will I know what makes somebody interesting?" As if you need to somehow suss it out or ask blunt questions. Neither is necessary.

Or you might think, "Heck, I'm shy myself I don't feel comfortable investigating people's private lives at work!" This also is not necessary. Because here's a hidden truth about other people: what makes them most interesting to us is the interest we place in them.

Think about that for a moment. It is the interest we place in others that makes them interesting. If you doubt this, think of anyone you know who has an unusual hobby. They're deep into something most people are not into that much. What is the number one reason that subject or activity is so fascinating to them? Their own fascination with it.

So when you set out to know the people in your workplace more authentically , beyond snap impressions and preconceptions, the task is not figuring them out in advance.

The task is figuring out what you find interesting about them. When you turn on your curiosity, ask genuine questions focused on the actual person and topic, such as "How does one get into this hobby? How do people pursue it?" It's the difference between telling a cook that their dish is delicious and asking about the ingredients that went into it, how long it took to prepare, and where exactly would I get that fresh saffron ... ?


The beautiful thing about inquiring questions is that they really do expand your experience and understanding of the world, in a way that brings you closer to the people you are spending at least a third of your life with.

Would you rather go to work with a bunch of people you find boring, or with people that respond to your interest in them by expanding your horizons -and by bringing more of themselves to their work and their team?

Now let's consider a couple of likely developments when you ask your inquiring questions.

First, you're not likely to like everything you learn about people, or even like them personally. Some of them are going to have unusual values, and some of them are going to have personality styles much different from your own. You're not likely to resonate with everybody equally. Fortunately, this is not necessary or even important.

Learning more about people naturally leads to more respect for them, and that will become mutual. This is part and parcel of building effective teams, building mutual loyalty, and raising up the people around you.

Everyone you work with, and I mean everyone, is deserving of your interest. When they feel in their gut that your inquiring questions are coming from your authentic interest, it opens them up to respond differently than if you handed them a questionnaire.

They feel emotionally safer to reveal more of themselves, and that's what leads to an evolving workplace where people naturally bring more energy and creativity to their work.

Secondly, people will often respond to your inquiring questions with information you had no idea was coming. If you ask what kind of music they're always listening to in their headphones, the answer might not be about Spotify.

It might be about the community orchestra where they play the bassoon.

If you ask about the exotic-looking food they're having for lunch, the answer might be about their cousin visiting from Indonesia.

Embrace these moments. Your inquiring question has just opened a doorway to a happier workplace where people feel more connected with each other as complete human beings, not just workers.


So remember to allow that full human being to answer your inquiring questions. You'll enjoy work more, you'll both be creating loyalty, and creating a culture of emotional safety where instead of hiding what makes them tick, people bring their best selves to work.