The Reason Why Smart People Always Ask "Why?" at Work

You’ve probably heard that asking thoughtful questions is the smart thing to do when the opportunity arises. Maybe you believe (and rightly so) that when you pose a question following a colleague’s presentation or at the end of a team meeting, you’re demonstrating a certain presence and awareness. You weren’t checked out—you have something to say.

But beyond proving that you weren’t zoning out is the fact that asking questions can actually make you look smarter. Muse writer Caroline Liu reported on a Harvard Business Review study that said people who seek advice and ask for help are viewed as more competent than those who don’t speak up.

So it was only a little surprising to learn that asking a series of questions, beginning with the word, “Why?” has similar advantages. If you want to appear wiser and like a person who sincerely cares about solving problems and not just moving on to the next item on your to-do list, this message is for you.

If you, for example, aim to try and understand why your budget proposal got rejected, you show yourself as someone who doesn’t simply take things at face value and just move on with your day.

Leah Fessler, in an article for Quartz explains it like this:

Crediting former Executive VP of Toyoto, Taiichi Ohno, Fessler maintains that it’s in the five-question strategy that progress is made. This strategy literally has you asking five different questions leading with the word, “why”—though if the directness of that three-syllable word makes you uncomfortable, you can pose other probing queries that begin with a different word.

The point is to try and ask things that will help you solve a problem. If you remain silent in an effort to avoid conflict, you’re not getting anywhere, certainly not to the bottom of understanding the issue and how to remedy it.

In the case of the rejected budget proposal, it can be a useful exercise in understanding your company’s current priorities. Getting to the bottom of it can make it easier for you to return to your boss with an updated plan that’s far likelier to get approved. (For more tips on getting your boss to say yes, read this.)

Yes, asking why-focused points may make the conversation longer, and it may even be uncomfortable. But in the long run, it’s a better approach than altogether avoiding further knowledge.

And sure, by the third or fourth query, you may be worried that you’re being annoying. But the truth is if you’re truly trying to gain insight to help you in your role, it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to have a negative reaction to your thoughtful, articulate inquiries, even if you’re not satisfied stopping after just one. Although I will pause to say there’s an emphasis on “thoughtful.”

There’s a difference between trying to get to the bottom of an issue so that you can better understand it and improve at your job—and sounding like a toddler who was told “no” to getting dessert. (And I’m sure you know the difference.)

So going forward don’t just ask questions to show your colleagues you were listening in the meeting. Ask because it’ll ultimately lead to greater career success. After all, the more you understand what’s going on at your company and even in your own boss’ brain, the easier it will be for you to know what steps to take next.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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