Yes, There is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

stupid-questionsAs you can imagine, the YouTern team spends a lot of time talking to young job seekers in need of career advice. And we try to dispense that advice in a no-fluff, direct way. If you’ve spent any time listening to our founder Mark Babbitt on our Blab series or reading his posts, you already know this: we don’t sugar coat anything around here.

Millennials tend to appreciate that direct approach. In fact, after doing a ton of qualitative research with Millennials, I’ve certainly noticed that many of them tend to speak in the same, get-right-to-the-point manner; I admire the directness many of them possess, for example, when it comes saying to exactly what they want out of a job.

With all this in mind, let me dispense some direct advice myself. Something that will help a young job hunter get, and keep, a job or internship. Something I know the YouTern team agrees on…

Yes, there IS such a thing as a stupid question!

Here’s What a Stupid Question Looks Like

Once at a national sales conference in front of our salesforce, I asked a simple, yet foolish question without thinking, and our very brilliant President skewered me in front of the entire company. When I tell that story I often hear, especially from younger people, “He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have humiliated you.”

But that is the wrong response. Despite my short-term humiliation, I know my President was right, and I learned a valuable lesson. We had precious little time together as a team, and it was imperative that all of us were serious and focused. I asked a question to which I should have known the answer, I shouldn’t have asked it, and I knew it as soon as finished the question.

With many companies moving to flatter hierarchies and ditching old school, top-down leadership (think Zappos), exactly who sets an organization’s vision has changed. In flatter systems, there are more people involved in creating a company vision. This leads to better conversation, more diverse contributions and creative brainstorming that is only possible when all individuals feel as if their ideas are valued.

However, this does not mean that every question is a good question. And the worst kind of stupid questions – like mine at that conference – divert creative sessions and kill the momentum of conversations. We’re all responsible for maintaining our focus on what is important, and wasting valuable time is never smart.

Stupid Questions are Evidence of a Lack of Soft Skills

The Educational Testing Service released an alarming study of the skills challenge facing American Millennials. The study’s most concerning conclusion is:

America’s millennials, on average, demonstrate weak skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers.”

If you believe that communication is at the heart of everything, a mantra that Bill Jensen – author of Simplicity and Future Strong – repeats in almost every conversation about career destiny, then you know what a big issue this is in the job market. You know the inability to communicate is not merely part of the Millennial generation bashing so popular on the web, it’s a serious problem.

At work, these poor communication skills often looks like this:

Someone begins an email chain about a project and conversation ensues. Someone jumps in late to the game and, instead of reading through the thread and getting a grasp on where the conversation is, they just start emailing questions that have already been answered; sometimes those questions start with:

“You may have already talked about this, but…[stupid question that’s already been answered.]”

Now THAT is what I consider a stupid question… and it may be perceived as a lack of important soft skills in addition to communication: attention to detail, ability to help solve problems, and mediocre work ethic to name a few. Because essentially, you’ve said:

“I’m not going to bother to read this entire chain; the conversation isn’t worth that level of effort… but I do want to feel like I’m part of the conversation, so I’m going to insert my thoughts here…”

To the others involved in the conversation, actions like this are frustrating and time consuming. They impede progress. They kill conversations. When you ask stupid questions, you send a signal to your co-workers, and it isn’t a good one.

Communication is definitely key to your ability to contribute to your team in a positive manner, and it certainly impacts your reputation within an organization. If you want to be taken seriously as a colleague, you’ve got to be careful about the questions you ask.

Take a moment. Do your research. Extend the conversation. Make people think. And then there’s no such thing as a stupid question.


Amy TobinAbout the Author: Amy McCloskey Tobin is a content strategist and creator. She specializes in generational insights, the future of work, the remote workforce, workplace diversity, and how tech has changed the business world. Amy has worked with major online publications to develop content and content strategy. A devotee of social media, Amy believes firmly that great content begets social media community. Find Amy on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter!

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