When I was studying psychology, our statistics professor had a strategy to get people to pay
attention. She would systematically work through the class attendance sheet and quiz students on
the spot in the lecture theatre.
I still remember the first question she asked me: ‘Mr Duck, what does an alpha of .05 mean?’ Don’t
worry, I won’t bore you with the answer 95% of the time (terrible statistics joke).
This was, at first, a most troubling scenario. Most students were content with sitting back in relative
obscurity whilst the lecturer did all the heavy lifting. If you switched off for most of the session that
was ok. It was the university equivalent of workplace presenteeism.
Yet, for some reason, the fear of being drilled on a statistics question at random was enough to have
every student sitting upright. They even seemed to be well prepared before the lecture.
In many presentations, workshops, training and meetings I regularly observe that the room is split
between people who say very little and those who do a lot of talking.
There are probably a few reasons for this:
If you are sitting down with a surgeon, you will have some questions lined up. You listen to their
advice. This is because there is a clear purpose to the meeting that motivates you. Meetings in other
workplaces often fail to set a clear purpose. People can sit around for hours discussing issues
without ever getting a real outcome.
If set as a regular meeting, the attendees will soon switch off completely. They will be physically but
not mentally present (presenteeism). They may even start playing with their phone or completely
ignore everyone while they respond to emails on their laptop.
Fear of offending
If you’ve ever watched the show Shark Tank—where would-be entrepreneurs pitch a business deal
to successful entrepreneurs—you’d recall that the hosts of the show are never afraid to put people
on the spot. Time and time again they question the guest on their business model, even if it
means destroying the person’s morale, their enthusiasm and their ideas.
However, in most areas of our working life, we avoid Shark Tank scenarios. Most of us are also
sympathetic when a colleague needs to present or if an entrepreneur is introducing a business idea.
We are always trying to find a balance between getting along with people and having difficult
conversations to improve productivity and quality. As an entrepreneur, you always want to hear the
positive even though constructive feedback is more valuable. Workplaces that value politeness and
harmony over business results can end up with individuals pursuing bad projects and ideas with no
Fear of public speaking
In many instances individuals don’t speak up because they fear any kind of public speaking. When
you ask a question or put forward your idea to a group, you run the risk of looking foolish or ignorant. More often than not you are probably asking the same question everyone else has been
Research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests you may have little to fear
from asking questions. In fact, across several studies, individuals who asked more questions were
perceived by others to be more likeable.
In one study the researchers were even able to measure the question-asking behaviour of people on
speed dates. Individuals who asked more questions were more likely to get a follow-up date.
The researchers suggest that individuals who ask questions are perceived as responsive, which is
associated with listening, validation, understanding and care. Importantly, the researchers found
that individuals typically do not think they are liked if they ask more questions.
For the person on the receiving end, it is a sign that they are at least interested in the ideas you are
presenting. Someone passively nodding in agreement is likely to be a bad sign that the other person
wants the conversation to end quickly.
In a job interview this means that you may be more likely to get the job if you ask questions. At the
same time, you may also learn something from the answer. A win-win for you.
How was this blog? Was it ok? What could I do better?