Why Your Team Isn't Asking Questions (And How to Fix It)
Picture this: You're in a team meeting, and you can sense that something's off. You've just explained a new project, but the room is silent. You ask, "Any questions?". And ... crickets.
Sep 12, 2023
Later, you discover that many team members were confused but didn’t speak up. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone.
In fact, over my 15+ years managing amazing people, it happened more often than I would like to admit.
Even worse, I’ve seen many of them take a convoluted journey to avoid saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand this”.
Inevitably, when you ask them why they didn’t make it clear sooner, they will answer something like, “I didn’t want to appear stupid”.
What I’ve learned is that, as a manager, this is a red flag. Not on the individual, but on the fact that you haven’t made it clear that to grow, and for your team/company to succeed, everyone should be free to ask the most stupid question if they need to.
If something is not clear, it’s not the individual fault. The delivery of the message may not be clear enough.
This blog post is for every manager who’s ever wondered why their team hesitates to ask questions and what can be done to change that culture, as well as a team member who needs the courage to speak up.
The Science Behind the Fear of Looking Stupid
What is it that makes us “fear to feel stupid”. In fact, even when the team culture encourages people to speak up and ask questions, you’ll find that some individuals still need to be more comfortable with this exercise.
As you can imagine, this is actually a well-researched part of the human psychology and, strangely enough, physiology.
Social Psychology and Group Dynamics: The fear of looking stupid in a group setting isn’t just a personal quirk; it’s deeply rooted in social psychology.
Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in the 1950s demonstrated how powerful the need to conform can be. In his studies, participants were more likely to agree with an obviously incorrect answer if the rest of the group endorsed it. This phenomenon is known as “conformity pressure” and it can make individuals reluctant to ask questions that might set them apart from the group.
Study Reference: Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment
Cognitive Biases: Our brains are wired with cognitive biases that influence our behaviour, often without realising it.
One such bias is the “Spotlight Effect,” which makes us believe we’re being noticed more than we actually are. A study by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Husted Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky found that people overestimate how much others observe them, making the fear of asking a “stupid” question seem like a bigger deal than it actually is. In his studies, participants were more likely to agree with an obviously.
Study Reference: Solomon Asch – Conformity Experiment
Imposter Syndrome: Imposter Syndrome is another psychological factor that contributes to the fear of asking questions.
This term was first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. They found that high-achieving individuals often doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a “fraud.” This syndrome can make team members hesitant to ask questions, as they may feel that doing so would expose their perceived inadequacies.
The Need to Belong: Evolutionarily wired to prioritise social connections, our brains associate the perceived risk of looking foolish with tangible threats.
Historically, exclusion from our tribe could mean the difference between life and death. Today, it could mean sidelong glances from colleagues and imagined whispers around the water cooler. The fear of asking questions is also tied to our fundamental need to belong. A study by psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary posits that the “need to belong” is a primary human motivation. When we fear asking questions, it’s because we’re afraid of being ostracised or rejected by the group, which would threaten our sense of belonging.
Physical pain: Social ridicule or embarrassment triggers the same areas in our brain as physical pain. So, the fear of looking stupid isn’t just psychological. It’s biological.
However, being rejected, however distressing, seems different from physical pain; it does not result from a noxious bodily stimulus.Thus, failure to observe activations in brain regions that support the bodily representation of physical pain in response to rejection is not surprising.
What have we learned
So far, the deck is stacked against us. We seem to be wired to not make waves, to run away from the embarrassment of ‘not knowing’.
Let’s now explore how we can change this, both at a personal level as well as a team culture level.
5 Top Tips for team members to muster the courage to ask questions
There’s so much a team culture can do before you, as a person, will have to still make the effort. These tips will be more powerful if you work in a team that embraces the “speaking up culture”. But before you dismiss your team as incompatible, give them a shot. You might be surprised.
Something culture needs to be better communicated, but individuals will still value your interrogations.
Embrace your inner voice: Nobody knows everything. You, me, your boss, and certainly not your coworker, who seems to have all the answers.
And guess what? That’s perfectly OK! The first step in mustering the courage to ask questions is admitting to yourself that you don’t know something—and that’s not bad. It’s how we grow. Easier said than done, I agree. But self-knowledge is not new.
Do your homework: Do you know that feeling when you want to ask a question but are unsure how to put it into words?
We’ve all been there. For those, a little prep work can go a long way. Before your next meeting or one-on-one, write down what’s puzzling you. You should even rehearse it a bit. You’ll walk in feeling more confident and ready to engage.
Timing is Everything: Only some questions need an audience.
If you’re worried about asking something in front of the whole team, find a moment to pull someone aside later. Whether after the meeting or via a quick Slack message, sometimes the best questions are asked in small committees. While I recommend managers to encourage project-related questions to be asked in the open, if you have to start with one-to-one, it’s good as well. What’s essential is that interrogations are raised so clarity can be given.
Find Your Question Buddy: This one’s a game-changer.
Find someone you’re comfortable with on your team and make a pact to back each other up in meetings.If one of you asks a question, the other can chime in with something like, “Great question, I was wondering the same thing.” There’s strength in numbers, and having an ally can make asking a question a lot less scary.
Understand that it’s OK to “be the ‘stupidest’ in the room: In fact, sometimes it’s the best position to be in.
Embrace not understanding something. More often than not, it’s not because you need help understanding but because the delivery of the information is not adapted to you. By asking questions, answers will benefit everyone in the room and help clarify things for other individuals who haven’t mastered your courage yet. If it’s good enough for Simon Sinek, it’s good enough for me.
10 Top Tips for Managers to Foster a Team Culture that Emphasises Safety in Asking Questions
Right now, onto the exciting part. How you, as a manager can foster a culture that makes people feel confident in asking questions.
Lead by Example: If you have to do one thing, it would be this one. If you want your team to feel comfortable asking questions, you’ve got to show them how it’s done.
Next time you’re in a meeting, be the first to say, “I don’t know. Can someone explain that to me?” You’ll be amazed at how this simple act can open doors. In fact, I will go as far as saying, force yourself to ask questions, even if you know you can find the answers by yourself. As your team, how to do something that you forgot how to do, or how this part of your project works.It will show them that you can have ‘stupid’ questions and make them feel more confident next time they need to raise their hand.
Create a Safe Space: Remember that time you asked a question and got shot down?
Yeah, nobody wants to feel that way. Make it clear that your team’s meetings are a judgment-free zone. Encourage different viewpoints and celebrate diversity of thought.
Encourage Open Dialogue: Take your time with agenda items in meetings
Pause and ask, “Does anyone have questions or thoughts they’d like to share?” And then—this is crucial—wait. Give people a moment to gather their thoughts and speak up.
No Such Thing as a Stupid Question: You’ve heard it a million times, but it bears repeating.
Make this your team’s mantra. Put it on a poster if you have to, and make sure it’s repeated during the onboarding process and retrospectives! The point is to make everyone feel like their curiosity is valued.
Anonymous Channels: some questions can be sensitive.
Create an anonymous channel where team members can ask questions without fear of judgment. You’ll be surprised at the issues that come to light.
Reward Curiosity: Remember that team member who asked a great question in the last meeting?
Could you give them a shout-out? Positive reinforcement goes a long way in encouraging a culture of inquiry.
Be Approachable: Have you ever had a boss who seemed too busy or substantial to talk to? Don’t be that person.
Keep your door open—literally and figuratively. Let your team know you’re always available for a quick chat.
Train Managers: If you’re a manager of managers, this one’s especially for you.
Make sure your leadership team is trained in fostering an open culture. Beat that drum. Remember, the tone is set at the top.
Regular Check-ins: Do not underestimate the power of a one-on-one.
These private conversations can be the perfect setting for questions that team members might hesitate to ask in public.
Feedback Loop: Last but not least, always follow up.
If someone asks a question, ensure it gets answered—even if you have to look up the answer yourself.
It will show your team that questions are taken seriously and encourage a culture of continuous learning.
The last and most important point
More often than not, questions arise when something is not clear.
So when questions are asked, make a note of them. And when different people ask the same question multiple times, you know that you have something to improve on.
Document, train, and change delivery style. Try a different approach, but if something is unclear enough that multiple people question it, you have something to improve on.
Remember, not everyone will have the courage to speak up, so you only hear from the tip of the iceberg.