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Dec 19 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Asking Questions at Work


Last week, an employee was telling us horror stories about their former company.

“My boss told me I got two questions per topic,” she said with a grimace. “If I asked her a third question, she’d refuse to answer.”

This employee had clearly escaped a pretty toxic workplace. However, asking questions is a difficult dance no matter where you work—you don’t want to waste anyone’s time on something you could’ve figured out yourself, but you also don’t want to miss out on crucial information because you never asked.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, these three guidelines will help you decide who, what, when, where, and why to ask questions.

1. Use Your Resources First

Most people know about the Google rule: If you think you can find the answer by Googling, do that first. Imagine you’d like to know more about the products your new employer offers. You could ask your boss, but it would be a good idea to research the company’s offerings online before requesting her insights.

And usually, Google isn’t your only resource. Many organizations also have internal knowledge bases—maybe a manual, but often a wiki or intranet. Do some digging on these platforms. If you’re still clueless, or you’ve learned something but you’re looking for greater detail, go to your coworker or supervisor.

You can also poke around your company’s project management software. For example, many teams now use Slack to discuss their problems, projects, and progress. Running a quick search in Slack might surface the info you need. The same goes for Basecamp, Trello, Asana, Redbooth, or any other organizational tool.

2. Factor In Urgency

You should completely ignore the “resources first” rule when the situation is urgent. If time is of the essence, your team members will understandably be frustrated that you took precious hours or days to investigate a problem—while keeping them in the dark.

To give you an idea, let’s say a junior engineer notices roughly one-third of your active websocket connections have been dropped. That’s a huge issue—and it becomes huger still if they decide to explore the wiki for a remedy rather than asking a senior employee, “Hey, what should we do?”

The takeaway: Any time you suspect something’s really timely or critical, say something immediately.

3. Lead With What You Do Know

It’s always a good idea to start your question with what you do know, whether those facts are from your research or prior experience. You’ll show the other person that you’re not being lazy; you’re asking because you truly couldn’t find the information anywhere else.

Wondering what this technique might look like in action? Suppose you’re trying to figure out how your client currently onboards new users to its internal CRM.

Don’t ask: “How do you onboard new users?”
Do ask: “I might be off, but it seems like you onboard new users through a combination of in-person training and self-paced courses. Is that right?”

They say there’s no such thing as a stupid question—but there are definitely better questions. Use these three rules of thumb, and you’ll be in great shape.

About Signature Consultants, LLC

Headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Signature Consultants was established in 1997 with a singular focus: to provide clients and consultants with superior staffing solutions. For the ninth consecutive year, Signature was voted as one of the “Best Staffing Firms to Work For” and is named the 15th Largest IT Staffing Firm in the United States (source: Staffing Industry Analysts). With 29 locations throughout North America, Signature annually deploys thousands of consultants to support, run, and manage their clients’ technology needs. Signature offers IT staffing, consulting, managed solutions, and direct placement services. For more information on the company, please visit https://www.sigconsult.com. Signature Consultants is the parent company to Hunter Hollis and Madison Gunn.

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