Work with the right questions

At work people strive for a goal. This is often called the principal task, the value-adding work. It is the expressed intention at the levels of individual, group or organization. Related to this people solve problems with e.g. process, resourcing, business or technology. (It is always valuable to ask, what the principal task really is.)

People are, however, people. Especially when many. They have other questions at the same time, related to e.g. human needs, group dynamics or the organizational integrity. These other questions:

  • Take attention, time and energy
  • Do matter, have potentially significant consequences
  • Have second order consequences – build the culture, learning and so on
  • Block working with the principal task for shorter or longer time

In order to optimally promote the principal task, you need to recognize the right question and work with it. Forcing a solution to the wrong question does not really help. Have you ever heard: “Does not concern us, because we are rational adults.” Or “We can skip those, because we don’t have time.”

Conscious questions are the obvious normal stuff, technical and social things that people have learned to handle. Sources of questions

Pre-conscious questions are recognizable, especially when you try. You can observe and talk about them, and they become somewhat conscious. Examples:

  • Suppressed topics, taboos, cultural issues
  • Human needs: e.g. autonomy, safety, recognition, being heard…
  • Questions of trust, power, status
  • Question of leadership and dependency
  • Group dynamics
  • Should I invest the effort
  • Envy and competition – a sensitive topic
  • Games people play
  • Constantly ongoing inclusion and exclusion
  • Resistance, individual and group defense mechanisms e.g. groupthink
  • And some special cases

  • Scapegoat syndrome, tends to repeat
  • Pathological narcissism, difficult and dangerous

Oops. The list grows so easily! I will come back to these!

Unconscious is not observable. It can be considered the creative source where the other stuff emerges. You can not predict how the unconscious will respond to your actions.

Most of the times, things go naturally with no major roadblocks, just some very frustrating or insensible moments. People work with the preconscious questions unconsciously, and solutions emerges. This baseline is not the full potential – working consciously with the questions probably leads to a better solution. The group/team development is a good example.

It saves time and energy, if someone experienced can recognize the present questions and help to handle them consciously. Often just making the correct guess, giving a name to the question, makes it dissolve quickly, and the work can continue. Sometimes the interpretation is too much, and the group does not accept it. The proper timing, dose and form matters.

Sometimes, the unrecognized questions really block or deteriorate the work, and external help is beneficial.

A good situational leader, may it be boss, coach or scrum master:

  • Knows this preconscious people stuff. Actually it is not complicated, but needs some practise.
  • Has courage and social permission to work with all kinds of questions
  • Is able to use oneself as an instrument. For example when you feel strange, what is really going on? Are these feelings mine or what?

This is also called emotional intelligence. Surprisingly, it can be learned and practiced. I have coached many technically oriented people, who have turned to be emotionally talented – once they got the permission. The organizational culture and narrow identities sometimes really block people from using their full capability.


2 Comments on “Work with the right questions”

  1. Ilja Preuss says:

    Good post! Where can I learn how to learn this? Can you recommend any resources? Thanks!

  2. Ari Tikka says:

    Hi Ilja,

    Good to hear from you!

    Difficult question you posted… I have gradually collected a library of patterns and practised to recognize them. I have had colleagues with heavy training e.g. in the group therapy. More practice & training – more competence.

    Long workplace counselor or psychodrama trainings might be good places for practice. I am not sure what traditions you have there.

    In principle, whenever I feel strange, I wake up. Something significant is going on. In these situations and afterward it is very valuable to have reflection with someone experienced.

    Just a list of phenomena (I will touch many of these in later blogs). You might google/wiki them now… Transference, counter-transference, group development, basic assumption behavior, resistance, defence mechanisms, organizational culture (Schein), Nonviolent Communication, Moore: “the Mediation Process”. Object relations theory. Ralph Stacey: Complex responsive processes in organizations.