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When to ask questions...and when not to

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This article was based on episode 040 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Questions have the incredible ability to make us think deeper, be more efficient, make better decisions and so much more. Their power stems from the act of articulating what is otherwise unspoken and sometimes even unarticulated in our own minds.

This week, I learned about the power of questions during a conversation with Pete Mockaitis, award-winning speaker and coach who helps professionals perform optimally at work, and host of How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.


Pete points out that clarifying questions can be some of the most difficult to ask simply because we fear embarrassment. We start wondering: Am I the only one who doesn’t get it? Should I already know this? Is this obvious and I’m going to look stupid for asking?

While no one wants to appear stupid to their colleagues, these clarifying questions are critical to working effectively and efficiently. At the end of the day, what’s really worse: asking a potentially obvious question early on and then completing the assignment correctly, or, making mistakes due to a lack of clarity and then having your boss tell you that you need to re-do the work?

There are six key questions to ask early on which will help you clarify work:

  1. The deliverable: what does success look like?

  2. The timing: when are critical milestones and due dates?

  3. The process: are there any guidelines or requirements for how the work gets done?

  4. The resources: what resources (people, money, vendors, etc) are available?

  5. The audience: who is this work being done for?

  6. The motive: why are we doing this work?


Pareto’s Law, also known as the 80-20 rule, stems from the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who noted that 80% of the land in his region was owned by 20% of the land owners. This 80-20 breakdown appears across many disciplines, ultimately leading to the idea that in business, 80% of the results come from 20% of effort.

As a team, you want to focus on that high leverage 20%. But how do you identify what actions are most important? Ask questions.

First, you need to know exactly want you want to accomplish:

  • What does success look like?

  • What is the result, the output that you are after?

  • How will you measure impact?

Once the goal is clear, Pete suggest you measure each of your activities or inputs against that goal to determine which are the vital few activities. When you focus on the most important 20%, prioritization and decision-making become clearer.


Inevitably you’ll be asked a question for which you don’t have an answer. That’s OK, we’re all only human. If it’s in a meeting, Pete suggests a simple response such as, “Thank you for that question. I've spent most of my time invested in exploring this other area so I don't have the answer for you right now, but I'm going to note it right here and make sure to get you the answer.”

As managers, colleagues sometimes come to us seeking answers. Again, we don’t have to provide them. Helping a team member work through the issue by asking more questions can be equally or more powerful than providing an answer.


I subscribe to the philosophy that there are no stupid questions, but I also believe that not all questions need to be asked. Some questions are inspired by our sense of curiosity but ultimately don’t move the work or team forward.

For example, if you notice the person is unable to answer your detailed questions, stop wasting time asking them. Instead, note your questions and share them as a follow up. This also avoids embarrassing the individual who may appear unprepared in front of the group.

Another moment to keep quiet is when the answer to your question has minimal or no impact on the outcome of the discussion. Reflect on the range of possible answers such as very few to hundreds, or, no current plan in place to a fully developed action plan. If neither of the extreme answers changes the situation, then the question can be skipped.


Questions are a wonderful tool to move a group forward. Try one of these the next time your team is feeling stuck:

  • What other information do we need in order to make this decision?

  • Who else needs to be here for us to move forward?

  • What other options exist? What other options haven’t we considered?

  • What might happen if…

  • How might we...

  • What questions should we be asking?

Join the Modern Manager community on Patreon and get Pete's Business Promises worksheet to help you manage your team's projects and progress, along with other guest bonuses and resources to support your journey to rockstar manager.

This article was based on episode 040 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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