To ask or not to ask

This post was originally published on the Front Row Agile blog, which has since disappeared.

Starting a new job

Many years ago, when I started a new job, I was excited because, well, I am not exactly known for being tolerant of boredom. New job, new domain and some new tech: heaven for a curious person such as myself.

My induction task looked fairly innocuous: Refactor some part of the code and add a few features that customers had been asking for. Doable, you’d think. Well, yes, at first glance.

The code base was larger than any I had seen before. Someone who was no longer with the company had done a refactor earlier, but the need for further work was obvious. The code was still unnecessarily complicated, and getting to grips with it wasn’t easy.

I went about that task in the most ineffective manner possible: I tried to figure it all out by myself. While I did ask questions, I asked nowhere near enough.

Guiding new hires

A couple of years later, by then well-versed in the code base and the functionality of the application, I volunteered to help new hires get up to speed. It was fun, and I liked it a lot. My heart always jumps a little when I see the lights go on behind someone’s eyes.

The arrangement was simple: We’d discuss what the part of application they were working on was intended to do, any problems that existed with it and any features that needed to be added. Then, I’d show them around the relevant code and give them a few “search terms” to find other related code. After that, I was available for any questions they might have.

Though not ideal, it worked well–at least, it did at first. It fell apart when a new hire didn’t ask enough questions. We had some of those, and the consequences weren’t pretty: oversights, bugs and inefficiencies in places where performance was crucial. Many were caught at review time. More were caught by the QA or acceptance testers. Some were not caught until they reached customers. All of them required extra work to rectify what had fallen between the cracks.


What stopped me from asking questions? What allowed some new hires to ask questions, some of them ad nauseam? What stopped other new hires asking enough questions?

There are plenty of reasons why people do not ask questions. Over-confidence is one. Not wanting to bother busy people is another. Fear, as the opposite of trust, is what interests me.

Though I didn’t think of it at the time, in hindsight, fear – or a lack of trust – was the main reason for my lack of questions. While I haven’t explicitly asked any of the new hires about this issue, I do remember many conversations we had around the topic, including some very illuminating responses that all point to that same reason.

So, what was driving that lack of trust?

We just started out in our jobs and were still feeling out our new surroundings. Every interaction we had would have influenced our trust levels, as would every interaction we observed. Still, trust doesn’t erode that quickly.

Whenever you go into a new situation with new people, you are thrown back onto yourself. So, unless you actively discourage questions, how many questions people ask in the first few weeks is driven by their levels of self-trust.

I do mean self-trust and not self-confidence. My self-confidence has always been pretty high. I know what I can and cannot do and I tend to think I can do almost anything given a bit of time and practice.

My self-trust, however, has until recently been extremely low, if not non-existent.

When you look at BRAVING, it’s the N that’s the kicker in these situations. The more judgmental your self-talk is, the less likely you are to open yourself up to judgments from other people. Asking questions becomes fraught with danger, the core of which is: “They will think I’m incompetent.”


When you start a new job, or join a group of people:

  • Realize that the judgments you fear from others are actually your own judgments about yourself which have formed as a result of your self-talk.
  • Practice non-judgment (towards yourself) and ask the questions that enter your head. Of course, you should try yourself first, but don’t remain stuck by not asking.
  • Show what you’ve tried when asking your question. It will go a long way toward other people gladly helping you out when they see that you don’t just cry for help at the first obstacle.
  • Realize that asking questions shows your reliability. This may sound strange, but it shows that you are aware of your competencies as well as your limitations. People can rely on you to ask for help when you need it.

When someone new starts in your team:

  • Realize there are several reasons for not asking questions: over-confidence, not wanting to bother busy people or lack of self-trust, to name a few.
  • Realize that no matter how often you assure people that it is okay to ask questions, it does not guarantee they will do so.
  • Respond to questions with patience and non-judgment. Judgment and lack of generosity are the quickest ways to kill trust. Showing impatience or getting irritated by questions is just as much a judgment as an explicit statement.
  • Proactively engage with new hires. Show interest and ask open questions daily, if not multiple times a day.
  • Realize that “how are you” and “how are you getting on” may start with “how,” but are actually closed questions because they allow for a very short answer: “Good.”

Be brave and braving!