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(Alex Slobodkin / iStockphoto)
(Alex Slobodkin / iStockphoto)

On the job

Don't shy away from the tough questions Add to ...

Are there any questions?

We've all experienced the silence at the end of a presentation when even those who have concerns about what has been said, or are confused about the content, hesitate to say anything. After all, it's human nature not to go looking for trouble.

And it's not only meetings or interviews in which workers shy away from bringing up difficult issues. New research has found that if people aren't asked specifically to discuss a problem, they'll find a way to avoid bringing it up for fear that they'll be blamed for it or be seen as negative.

Such reticence can hamper productivity, a new study warns. Unless bosses specifically encourage people to talk about problems, they are unlikely to hear about them until it may be too late to fix them.

"Everybody tells managers it's important to ask lots of questions. But even really bright people are uncomfortable asking probing questions that may result in negative responses, so they only ask general and indirect questions that allow people to just skate around problems," said Julia Alexandra Minson, a postdoctoral researcher in information management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

To draw out the information people would rather conceal, "you have to be willing to ask negative questions that directly indicate that you believe there must be problems and you want straight answers," said Ms. Minson, who did the research with Wharton colleague Maurice Schweitzer and Nicole Ruedy of the University of Washington.

In a series of experiments, each involving about 200 university students, the researchers tested how much negative information people would disclose without being questioned in depth. One key experiment asked subjects to negotiate the sale of a used iPod via computer. The students were informed that the iPod was two years old and in good physical condition, but that on two occasions it had "frozen," inexplicably losing all stored music. While the music could be reloaded, the possibility of future freezes was unknown.

The students then received a message from a supposed potential buyer that concluded with one of three questions about the iPod: A general question ("What can you tell me about it?"); a positive-assumption question ("There aren't any problems with it, right?"); or a negative-assumption question ("What problems have you had with it?").

Depending on how the question was posed, the responses of the sellers were dramatically different. In response to the negative-assumption question, 87 per cent of the sellers alerted the buyer to the problems with the iPod. That compared with only 59 per cent of those responding to the positive-assumption question, and a mere 10 per cent of those who were asked the general question.

"The implication for managers is to ask questions that assume there are concerns and problems," Ms. Minson explained.

An example of a question that would elicit the information you want, she said, is: "I don't want to hear about how wonderful this is; tell me what really ticks you off about this."

Posing the right kind of question goes beyond workplace interaction; it should also be used in negotiations, performance reviews, interviews and when purchasing goods and services - basically any situation where people tend to shy away from confrontation, Ms. Minson added.

Questions should communicate that you assume there will be issues and that you are willing to deal with them if they are made clear, she said.

"In a negotiation, saying 'It's okay to tell me bad things, because I expect them to happen' creates the assumption that you are a savvy negotiator and will find out anyway."

In any negative interaction, of course, it's important to have developed a foundation of trust, so that people feel comfortable opening up without fear of reprisals, Ms. Minson said.

The research results will be presented at the Academy of Management's annual meeting in San Antonio next month.

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