Note: Another letter provides a nice counterpart to this one. See Asking Questions.

Dear Ms. Harriet,

My parents taught me to work hard from an early age. And, if I didn’t know how to do something, they showed me how to use what I know to figure out what I don’t. Their strategy is helping them look forward to a good pension after decades at the same job. It got me through college and, now, into my first real job. My parents take pride in me not being blue collar.

I’ve got a good boss. She’s friendly and encouraging. Since professors I like told me to get a mentor, I went ahead and got one. Now, both my boss and my mentor keep asking me if I have any questions for them. They ask and look at me like I should have some. I don’t why. I asked about everything I needed to know during my interview. And like I said, I know how to do my job and how to figure things out. I get things done. My boss even tells me that I do.

Even if I could think of a question, why would I want to give the impression that I don’t know what I’m talking about or make them think they hired the wrong person? I aim to do my job and bother no one by asking too many stupid or wrong questions. Am I missing something?

–Ain’t about inquiries

Dear Ain’t about Inquiries,

Asking questions is a skill worth developing. Sure asking questions can help you get information about something. But, you might be missing that asking questions at work can help you learn about more than just how to do your job. It can give you valuable insight into social and others aspects of your company. If done effectively, asking questions can even demonstrate that you not only know what you’re talking about but can also convince others you know a whole lot more.

Getting to know

Some organizations recruit us Ones who made it heavily with the expectation that we’ll diversify the workplace. Asking questions can help ascertain how much diversity is truly valued. We may indeed experience the work world differently because we’re the first generation in our family to achieve professional status. Or, we may experience it differently for many other reasons. I’ll guess you’ve been encouraged to get to know your co-workers. Asking questions provides one way to get to know them. Even if their responses confirm what you already know, you’ll have a chance to notice how gracious or grumpy your colleagues are about helping out the newcomer. So, for starters, ask questions for social reasons. It’ll give you a chance to get to know your colleagues and give them a chance to get to know you.

Discover different perspectives

The Fairness Doctrine (1949) required newscasters to report differing viewpoints on topics covered. Since the Federal Communication Commission voted it down 1987, some news sources can and do present only one side of an issue. Whether you support such legislation, having it meant the American press once modeled how to consider multiple perspectives. Considering them can be useful for understanding an issue, resolving a conflict, operating efficiently, providing effective services… you get the idea. Ask questions to find out whether administrators, customers, long-term employees, tech support staff, or others have a different view of an issue than you do.

Some assume the role of devil’s advocate to gain new perspectives. Doing this can involve describing an unpopular scenario just to encourage people to talk about what would happen if it became a reality. This tactic can be tricky if the scenario depicted brings up costly past mistakes, ongoing grudges, or other workplace dynamics. So, leave that role for those who have a complex sense of the organization and themselves.

Organizational fit

People change jobs and careers more often than in previous generations. Chances are you weren’t recruited in a way that made you want to remain in your current workplace for the remainder of your career. Still, you probably learned quite a bit from the experience, for example, by noting what happened when you posed a question to a group. Who answered it and how? Did those within the group quietly turn to the person-in-charge? Or, did all respond at once, laugh at their excitement, and yield to the most eager. Consider how either reaction provides clues about organizational power dynamics.

After you’re hired, note whether questions you ask become a tool to gain new perspectives or to reinforce the status quo? Ideally, the nature of the interaction surrounding your question will match your comfort level and work style. I have friends from military families who prefer to hear only from the boss. While a friend who worships the 1960s really “digs” every question asked. But, she considers the best questions ones that generate dialog. Her colleagues share her views.

All this is to say, use questions to get a sense of your company’s culture and to determine your potential for professional growth there. If responses to your questions repeatedly remind all that ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ consider whether a fresh perspective will ever be viewed as a viable contribution there. On the other hand, note whether responses ever motivate change or a conversation about it. The latter more likely reflects an organizational value that promotes diversity or encourages innovation.

In short, in addition to responses you get to questions you ask, notice whether asking generates the types of dialog you’ve longed to be a part. If yes, by all means, strive to earn a promotion, buy any stock options available, invest in real estate within a reasonable commute, and otherwise plan to retire from that organization. If not, know your place in the organization and consider if the position offers enough to keep you professionally satisfied and for how long.

Engage in lifelong learning

They say lifelong learning contributes to good health. Get into the habit of staying curious. Judging from what you wrote, you can come up with some very good questions. So now, go ahead, ask more.

–Signed, Ms. Harriet