Do Your Employees Feel Comfortable Asking Questions?
Do Your Employees Feel Comfortable Asking Questions?

Do Your Employees Feel Comfortable Asking Questions?

Leadership Development, Employee Learning & Development, Company Culture, Employee Well-being   — 4 MIN


No one likes to look unintelligent in the workplace, which is why employees often avoid asking questions. While employees often feel that keeping inquiries to themselves is the best way to prevent embarrassment, for managers it is a sign that they don’t feel psychologically safe. Dr. Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, first coined the term psychological safety at work as a way to describe “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” In essence, employees who feel psychologically safe are comfortable being vulnerable—and vulnerability is a key component in innovation and collaboration. 

If your employees don’t feel safe asking questions, it could be hindering their creativity at work. It may be time to make some changes for the better of your entire organization. 

Why encouraging employee questions is a good thing

When employees feel comfortable asking questions, it’s a sign of a healthy company culture. They don’t feel judged and thus feel safe bringing “what if’s” and “why’s” to the table rather than fearing humiliation. Questions spur learning and the exchange of ideas, fuel innovation, and build rapport among team members. Here are some other reasons to inspire employees to speak up.

Questions create dialogue that helps to build relationships

A study from Berkeley shows that curious people have better relationships. As Dale Carnegie said in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, asking “questions the other person will enjoy answering” is a great way to spark conversation that builds relationships. Showing curiosity about a person makes them want to share more about their insight and experience, and in turn, makes them comfortable asking questions of their own.  

When you open communication pathways, it allows for honesty, vulnerability, and openness—all of which are essential to psychological safety. 

When employees speak up, it sparks change

By providing a non-judgemental platform for people to express ideas, your company can move in a new, exciting direction. Questions shift how we think, inspiring innovation and change within an organization.

Asking why reveals purpose

Employees want to know the reasons why they are doing their job. Having that answer can give them a sense of purpose, motivate them to be better team members, and encourage them to work more productively to achieve favorable results for the organization. Many projects fail when team members don’t truly understand the importance of the results. Asking why lets them know they play a critical part. 

Getting answers clarifies expectations

Uncertainty is a terrible feeling. When employees fear that asking questions will make them seem like a nuisance, they are stuck not fully understanding their position, their project, or their future with the business. Employees need to know their role to be accountable. Asking questions doesn’t make them annoying; it shows them that they deserve to have the information available to do their job best.

Encouraging employee questions reduces business risks

When employees voice concerns, it begins a discussion on how to deal with potential pitfalls. As solutions are formed, problems can be mitigated, and crises can be averted. 

How to help employees speak up

The best way to foster psychological safety in the workplace is to provide exercises that prove that their thoughts are valued. The more chances they have to ask questions, the more guidance they will receive—and the better they’ll feel about your culture. 

Encourage them to answer their questions

When employees don’t feel psychologically safe asking managers or peers questions, asking them to brainstorm on their own can help them feel more comfortable doing so. A great exercise that helps team members learn to open up about their concerns is to have them ask themselves questions about how they feel creatively, professionally, and personally.

Managers can tell each employee to make a list of questions about themselves they contemplate regularly. A few examples are:

  • What part of my job interests me most?
  • What kind of work would I like to do more?
  • Am I spending my time well? How can I spend it better?

This can also work to address issues with specific projects, with sample questions such as:

  • Which part of the project brings me joy?
  • Which part of the project feels most stressful?
  • Would I be open to more responsibility on the next project, and why?

At the next performance evaluation, employees can have the option to share their list as a way to begin a dialogue about their job performance and expectations. Or, the list can be shared during a team meeting if employees feel comfortable. Knowing that everyone else has done the same exercise may reduce the sense of vulnerability and open up meaningful conversations.

Begin and end meetings by asking if there are any questions 

Approaching a manager in his office with questions can be intimidating. However, when the floor is open in a meeting, employees often feel safe bringing up concerns. Plus, asking questions can have a domino effect: As soon as one person opens up, the rest of the group is likely to follow suit.  

One good exercise that eliminates the intimidation factor is to have everyone write down their questions anonymously on a sticky note, and then collect them. Reading each question out loud addresses each employee’s concern and allows them to feel heard while opening up the room for discussion. 

To clear up any confusion before and after meetings, you can also try going around the table and having everyone voice what they aren’t crystal clear about. If that doesn’t help employees speak up, encourage them to send an email to team leaders when they think of questions later. Employees need to see that the company’s culture values intellectual curiosity and that it’s not a sign of weakness to admit they don’t have all the answers.

Create avenues to help employees give and get feedback 

One fundamental aspect of a feedback culture is that feedback goes both ways, allowing employees to feel psychologically safe sharing concerns. During performance evaluations, employees should receive clear and constructive feedback from leaders, but they should be able to give feedback as well. Asking questions to managers who are actively listening should get them the answers they need to succeed. Be sure that leaders are clear of this expectation throughout your leadership development program

Feedback sessions with team members can also help employees speak up. However, a precedent for psychological safety must be set: No judging, no laughing, and no destructive dialogue will be allowed. To encourage honesty, all team members should also know that there will be no repercussions for what is said in the session. 

When coaching employees on how to provide feedback in a team environment, let them know that asking questions rather than telling is the best way to gain an understanding of each other; but that open-ended questions will yield more satisfying answers than others.

For instance, “Did you like this project?” might simply get a “Yes” or “No.” But “What would make this project flow better?” can only be answered with a more detailed explanation. Other great questions are:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go well?
  • What could we have done differently? 
  • What do we do next?

Soft skills training can help your employees speak up

While the exercises we mentioned above can help employees feel more comfortable asking questions, they must have empathy and understanding to communicate those questions well. Not everyone automatically has those soft skills, but they can be taught. Blue Ocean Brain offers a variety of soft skills microlearning lessons offered in bite-sized sessions to help employees learn these skills on their own time. We’d be happy to discuss how our award-winning training can help your employees be more comfortable with asking questions.