The perils of not paying attention to the questions

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Photo courtesy of Les Anderson

How does it make you feel when you try to discuss something with an expert advisor, and you get a canned response? Is it surprising? Annoying? Disappointing? All of the above?

I’m not referring to auto-generated email:

The reference number for your question is #XOXOXOXO. You should receive a response by email from our support department within the next business day.

Or:

If you’re reading this form reply from Robin Mizell Ltd., chances are you haven’t seen the agency’s website, which provides up-to-date query guidelines…

Autoresponders are the modern equivalents of CLOSED signs in shop windows—informative but not necessarily helpful.

Instead, I’m talking about those times when a question you consider important doesn’t seem to penetrate the consciousness of the professional you’re asking. Maybe you get no answer at all. Maybe you get a seemingly auto-generated reply, as if the person pushed the PLAY button to launch a recorded response that wasn’t quite on topic. It’s uncomfortably obvious that the person wasn’t really listening. The reply, in effect, was dismissive.

This is a classic among women’s complaints about men, which probably means that women often are too easily disregarded, too fearful of demanding consideration, and unwilling to challenge authority. Combine those troubling traditions with the tendency for some experts to avoid saying the words “I don’t know” or “Let me think about it.” Certain authority figures, regardless of their sex, simply can’t consider any new perspectives that might challenge their knowledge, so their reactions tend to be defensive.

Many times I’ve walked away, perplexed and disillusioned, after listening to a colleague’s baffling balderdash. The speaker probably assumed I was impressed, when actually I was crossing his name off my list of trusted consultants.

Give me an expert who won’t shrink from a good debate. We’ve moved into a new era of conversation and engagement. It’s a good thing. Learning should be a lifelong endeavor. The people Robert Safian calls Generation Flux know this: we learn from each other.

I love danah boyd’s analysis of the networked versus the hierarchical business environment, which she explains in a recent issue of Fast Company:

Command and control and hierarchical structures are being disintegrated. Big companies are trying to make that slow down. They have massive internal structural issues.

There are all kinds of reasons to be afraid of this economy. Everything in the corporate world is set up for security, so you can get to the next review. People who are willing to be uncertain will be more likely to be able to move ahead. People ask me, “Are you afraid you’re going to get fired?” That’s the whole point: not to be afraid.

Embrace the questions, people. They make everything more interesting.

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