December 16, 2018

It’s OK to Question Authority

Question authority

When I was in high school, my German teacher (who was also my Holocaust Studies teacher) said always to question authority. She didn't mean to do so in a belligerent or disrespectful way, but she wanted us to know it's alright to be curious. It's OK to question the powers that be when something doesn't make sense to us or if a directive seems out of sorts.

Why Asking Questions Scares Us

Often, people feel intimidated about asking persons of authority (or perceived power) tough questions that might be construed as undermining their expertise or intentions.

It happens with patients and their doctors, clients and their lawyers, and even employees and business owners.

We fear people will think we’re challenging them or trying to poke holes in the way things are being done.

We’re taught to respect authority—but that shouldn’t prevent us from asking questions of those in charge. People with authority must be responsible and accountable—and they sometimes make mistakes or oversights. Questions help make real leaders better at what they do.

Personally, I would never hire someone who would not challenge me or ask questions—whether it be to enhance their understanding or to verify that I know my stuff. In fact, some of my best customers ask difficult questions.

Curiosity: A Double-Edged Sword

In my last Vistage group, we were asked to complete the Gallup Strengths Assessment. The results identified one of my top five strengths as being “analytical.” While the report provided insight into my strength in this area, it also shared my blind spots.

“Because you ask many questions, people may think you doubt the validity of their ideas, that you do not trust them, and that you are tough to work with.”

“Your objective and fact-based approach to decision making may seem skeptical or critical.”

So, being inquisitive and studying ideas and processes from a variety of angles has its perceived downsides. But that doesn’t make asking questions wrong. Instead, it reinforces that we need to demonstrate respect when we approach people (whether they’re in a position of authority or not) with questions.

“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” ~ Thomas Berger

The bottom line is that questions represent a thirst for knowledge and insight, not a personal attack on someone’s authority or expertise.  And asking questions is something people of all genders, races, ethnicities, occupations, and income levels should feel empowered to do regardless of who will be on the receiving end.

Ask questions and welcome questions to be asked of you—it’s OK, really!

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4 comments on “It’s OK to Question Authority”

  1. “Ask more questions” is a great New Year's message! My husband, Warren Berger, writes whole books about how questioning leads to more success at work, healthier relationships, more creativity, and better decision-making. His most recent article about how & why asking questions of your boss pays off is right in line with your "question authority" post. http://amorebeautifulquestion.com

    1. I love it! I had no idea there was such a title as a 'Questionologist!' Perfect. Thanks for sharing this, Laura! I'm checking out his stuff now!

  2. This hit the spot Rachel, I believe this is a big issue in the workplace. Many people fail to ask questions in fear of reprisal or they are just plain afraid. On a more personal side, one of my favorite sayings I feel which is applicable to all people regardless of political affiliation, "Love your Country, question your government.". Happy New Year~ Make this your best year ever in family, in business and in your community.

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