In the consulting work I do with organizations and businesses, I have come to expect a point in time when I have to remind, or educate, the customer that asking questions is not a simple matter. You see, organizations can ask the same questions that consultants ask. They can conduct focus groups, develop surveys, do ethnographic interviews and often they believe that can do it as well as the consultants. Maybe they can.

But . . . the person asking the question makes a difference in the answer. Just like a teenager who tells one story to his parents and another to his best friend. It is obvious to most that employees tell different stories to managers than to others. Secondly, leaders are often too close to the subject to develop good objective questions.  Consider two questions I heard the other day on the radio. This was an interview between a journalist (who I assume prepared the questions in advance) and an expert in disaster management.  They were talking about two big disasters that were occurring simultaneously: flooding in the south and a wildfire burning on the west coast. These two questions almost made me swerve off the road . . .

Journalist: Why do the surveys keep showing that people aren't prepared?  

Me: Because we keep giving them the surveys.

Expert: Because people get complacent.  (Answering the real, unasked, question)

Me: No, that's why they aren't prepared. Not why the surveys show that they aren't prepared!

Journalist: Is preparation the same for wild fires and flooding?  

Me: Yes . . . (let that sink in a moment)  No!  Are you kidding me? Did you really just ask me that question?.

Expert: Yes, first you need to evacuate the area. (Again, answering the intended question not the literal one)

Here is a trained journalist asking what are, in my opinion, two very poorly thought out questions. Thankfully the expert knew how to handle each one so no harm was done and the answers (data) were along the lines of what the interviewer wanted. We all are aware of "brutal" questions that are not affective . . . "What's wrong with you?" asked of an employee under-performing for example. But recognizing questions mislead in subtle ways are not commonly caught.

A seemingly simple question such as, "We all know there is a problem. How do we fix it?" May generate little or no real actionable data if employees react by saying to themselves "that's your job" or "you didn't listen to me last time."  The person delivering the message, the history of the work team, even the words and non-verbals associated with asking all become variables that promote or discourage gathering good data.

If you really want to make progress, invest the time to develop the right questions, have the right person or means to collect the information, and create an environment to collect the information that feels safe. Otherwise the data you present in your report to leadership may not be worth the paper it was printed on.

What's wrong with these questions . . . if anything?

Just a little extra "fun," can you spot the problem with the following questions?

1. When did you quit beating your wife?  Okay, an old joke, I know.

2. Do you like the bonus program and what changes would you make?

3. There is a lot of complaining about supervisors right now. What do you think about the supervisors?

4.What has it been like working as a part of the team?

5. Do you agree that our time off policy needs changing?

6. Would you rather have more money or better benefits?

If you can spot the problems easily then you probably already are aware of the risks and maybe you are even training in developing good questions.  If you are having a difficult time than note that you will want to make sure to work with someone who can help you get the data you are looking for from your interviews or surveys. to may way of thinking, only one question-number four-is a good question in most circumstances. What did you think?