Note: I respond to another letter that provides a nice counterpart to the one below. See: Seeking Answers.

Dear Ms. Harriet,

I help others succeed. I’m not a career coach or anything like that. I just hire a lot of entry-level staff. I don’t baby them. They’re professionals. Instead, I aim to guide them, make [sure] they’re stable with their training wheels off so to speak.

Then, I saw Hidden Figures. Good movie. It made me think about who I help. I noticed I tended to help those who ask me for help. If they didn’t ask, I just figured they didn’t need anything. I also noticed that fewer minorities asked me questions. And, the ones who asked me (or others like me in the org) questions tended to go places–got better projects, promotions, better job offers. I’m generalizing, but I’m pretty sure I see a pattern. Those who ask more questions go farther, seem happier, and get more opportunities. I’ve assumed it’s because they exude self-initiative and active engagement. Execs like to see that.

Since thinking about all that, I’ve started encouraging my staff to ask me questions. You can probably guess the outcome, but it surprised me. I say over and over–in group meetings, in one-on-one conversations, in pairs at the water cooler–ask me anything, about your career, your job, my job, anything. Most minorities still don’t ask. How can I help them ask more questions and reap the benefits to which, I think, it leads?

Thanks for this space. Ironically, I’ve not had other places to ask this question.

Best, Inquisitive about inquiries

Dear Inquisitive about inquiries,

Ms. Harriet: To help others help themselves, be quiet.

Sounds like you’re working pretty hard at the new part of your job, bucking the system. You’re not the only one who’s been moved by Hidden Figures. Your questions aim to bring such figures, who may be the first Ones in their families to achieve such success, to the forefront. My advice to you may seem simple at first, but give it some thought: To help others help themselves, be quiet.

Encourage questions once or maybe twice. And then, trust that they heard you. Some of the most effective marketing campaigns convey an experience without flaunting a brand. For example, the New York Times conveys its quality by simply stating that the truth is hard to find in a set of its advertisements.

Next, be aware that repeating yourself may make the very people you’re trying to help suspicious. They’ll wonder if they can get a word in edgewise. Or, they may suspect that only those who ask good questions will advance.

Being quiet doesn’t just involve shutting your lips. It can involve giving time to differing views, whether in small or large groups. Or, ever start a meeting by listening instead of talking? Both of these strategies can get uncomfortable. You may find yourself waiting patiently while no one talks. But, both are worth trying in the service of letting others learn to speak.

Finally, being quiet can mean letting others talk for you. If you help one person of color succeed or feel more like a member of the group, that person will likely tell another. In other words, build your reputation as an ally and let it speak on your behalf.

Thanks for asking such a great question. From what you wrote, I’m guessing you don’t need to be reminded of how change takes time. But, if you need inspiration, consider change as discussed in Why I Mediate posts on this site.

–Signed, Ms. Harriet