You've got questions, but should you ask them at work? Many employees feel it's risky. They wonder, will work-related queries make them seem aware and engaged or uniformed and ill-prepared?
What the experts say
The truth is, many experts say that asking questions can be a career booster. But that advice comes with a caveat—questions must be well-thought out, insightful and carefully timed. Questions that don't check those boxes could harm your career, particularly if you ask so many that your boss feels the need to hide from you in order to get any work done.
Because this can be a tricky area, many employees decide it's better to play it safe and keep quiet even when they need information. "The reason people often don't ask is they simply feel it's safer to say nothing," says Margie Warrell, bestselling author of Stop Playing Safe. "Speaking up and asking a question puts us at risk of an outcome we'd prefer to avoid—losing face, feeling rejected, being criticized, social disapproval or damage to our reputation. Given that we are wired to avoid risk, it's no wonder that people so often choose to say nothing than to speak up and ask a question."
But avoiding risks can carry its own risk. "When we say nothing we also contribute nothing, learn nothing and often cut off the possibilities of opening doors, creating opportunity and building our own 'brand' in the workplace," says Warrell.
Asking the right questions shows you're thinking about what your employer wants you to accomplish, says Irene Leonard, a professional business coach with www.CoachingForChange.com, "They're a good way to get to the heart of a problem that needs to be solved. If you're afraid to ask questions then you won't be as successful as the employee that does use questions to find out what they need to get the job done efficiently and correctly."
What you should ask and when
So the real question is how can you tread this line between asking enough, but not too much? Below are some tips to keep in mind at the office.
Think before you speak. Specifically, ask yourself whether this is a question you can answer on your own. For example, are you asking for information from a report you can easily look up? If so, it may be wise to wait rather than ask. Save your questions for more crucial information.
Prepare your questions carefully. "They say that no question is a dumb question but let's be frank, some questions can come across poorly if you haven't thought things through a little before asking it," says Warrell. Also consider whether your question may also come across as antagonistic or critical of a higher-up or coworker. Try to avoid an arrogant or aggressive tone. Leonard agrees. How you ask questions is as important as what you ask. Always think about how the listener may respond to them. "Make your questions curious and not leading or judgmental. Use 'what' and 'how' rather than 'why,'" she says.
Craft effective questions. When asking a question, be certain to think about what your goal is and whether that specific question will bring you the right information. Also think carefully about phrasing-unless you're looking for a yes or no answer, you don't want to ask a yes or no question.
Look before you speak. The right question can quickly become the wrong question if it's not asked at the right time. Some questions should be asked in private if they are in regard to sensitive information. For example, says Warrell, "You wouldn't want to ask why your colleague was promoted over you at a team meeting. Also be aware of timing. The day after you're told your project is over budget and behind deadline probably isn't the time to ask about that pay raise," she says.
Ask for input. Going to be treading in a murky area with your question? "Get feedback from people you trust before your ask questions," says Leonard. "Have them help you reframe the questions to get the results you want."
Ultimately if you do feel like your question should be asked, don't hesitate to speak up.
"Of course context is always important and there are times when it may be prudent to say nothing, however more often it's better to speak up and ask questions—whether to ask for clarification of what is expected or needed, to ask for support or to simply ask someone to explain their rationale for a particular decision," says Warrell.
Provided you've done a little due diligence there's nothing wrong with asking questions in the workplace and you shouldn't be afraid to ask.