The fear of asking “dumb” questions has undoubtedly led to some of the most notorious failures in recent history. I’m sure if you really analyze any major business failure, you will find that somewhere along the lines someone had a hunch that things were in trouble, or were not what they seemed to be on the surface but remained quiet in fear of asking a “dumb” question. I know for sure that in our business the fear of asking “dumb” questions can get you into serious trouble.
Let’s say you are a Project Manager with 2-3 years of experience and you are leading a project team made up of trade foremen who have 10 times your experience (a common scenario in our business.) It takes a lot of courage and confidence for a less experienced PM to stop a subcontractor foreman during the middle of a project meeting and have them explain what they said. Maybe they used a technical term that was unfamiliar to you. Do you have the thought that “everyone probably knows this, so I better not ask and look stupid”? Or do you say “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that term. Could you please explain that to me?” More often than not, you will see a few other “enlightened” faces around the table when you ask a seemingly “dumb” question. In other words, you were not the only one who didn’t understand, but you were the only one who had the courage to ask.
Early in your career, in order to understand what is happening on your projects, you might have to ask a lot of questions. This gets much easier to do as your experience grows. But even the experienced still have to ask questions. Whether you are trying to understand the mechanics of a complex building system or evaluating subcontractor bids, you have to ask questions about what you don’t understand. If things don’t look or sound right, then they probably aren’t right. Truly successful leaders ask lots of probing questions and listen attentively to the responses in order to understand what is really going on in their business and their market.
One legendary example of asking a “dumb” question was a reporter once asking an Enron executive exactly how they were making money. The reporter got a belligerent response to her question and you all know how that story ends. So if you do question someone about something that just does not look right to you, and you get a belligerent response, you know you are on to something. Keep pressing and you will soon find out that your hunch was correct. In most cases however, you will find that people will be happy to provide you with an answer and they will probably appreciate the fact that you asked.