“It is not so much, “is my question leading to right or wrong answers?” but rather “What effect is my question having on our lives together… Is it strengthening our relationships?”David L Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change
The traditional sequence of activity in organisational change goes: gather information, analyse it, prescribe an intervention, and implement it. Underlying this process is the assumption that we can observe a system without affecting it.
But – if patterns of human organisation are not dictated by our genes or determined by the physical world, but instead are socially constructed in the context of relationships and communication, the questions we ask become another input into the socially constructed system. They have effects on the listener, putting certain ideas and images in their mind and excluding others, and directing their attention along certain avenues of enquiry while closing off others. The enquirer or ‘analyst’ is also influenced by the ‘frames’ set up by the questions.
This is not just a conscious-mind process. Through the psychological effect known as ‘priming’, the associations evoked at an unconscious level by words, images, or concepts influence our thought patterns, our behaviour, and even our abilities. So, for example, being asked or reminded about money tends to make people act more selfishly, and – in an example widely known since it was quoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink – African-Americans tend to perform worse on intelligence tests if a question about ethnicity is included.
It’s not just person being questioned who is affected by the ‘frames’ set up by the questions. The enquirer or ‘analyst’ is also influenced, particularly if they have not reflected on the assumptions that shape their inquiry.
For example, a director might decide to gather information about problematic stress levels in her company by commissioning a stress audit. Everyone in the company fills out a questionnaire, and some are interviewed, about sources of stress, bringing the subject to the forefront of their attention. “Actually”, they think, “this is quite a stressful place to work!”
Stress levels actually rise as a result of the survey, particularly as the workforce are suspicious of the management’s intentions (based on their past experience). Is the survey really anonymous? Will my comments about the stressors in my department enable the response to be traced back to me?
The stress audit naturally raises expectations among the staff that the employer will do something about stress levels. If the employer chooses not to, the intervention now gives them another problem as well. Under UK health and safety law, employers have a duty of care which requires them to not expose their employees to undue stress levels. The company cannot claim that they were unaware of the stress levels, because they have conducted the stress audit.
The way that we ask the questions also has an effect, because the interviewees interpret the meaning of the questions in the context of the non-verbal information or ‘paralanguage’ that they can pick up. This would include the manner of the interviewer in face-to-face interviews – is it brusque, sympathetic, apparently just ‘ticking boxes’, or (ideally) interested and ‘fully present’? It also includes the metaphorical ‘tone of voice’ of both live interviews and written questionnaires – how the questions are phrased, and how the interview process is introduced to the workforce.
Inevitably, the people being interviewed will evaluate the real meaning of the information-gathering process against the backdrop of these factors. They will also try to divine the ‘real’ intention of the diagnostic process. Are the interviews designed to help us? Are we being checked up on? Is it a prelude to deciding which of us to let go? How much can we trust the interviewers? How the interviews are framed will make a tremendous difference to how they are perceived, how cooperative the interviewees will be, and the quality of the information that you get back.
The final piece in the jigsaw of how people judge the interviewing process will be the conversations they have with their fellow workers about it. This will tend to consolidate first impressions. If expectations have been badly managed, so that people are anticipating a hostile interview, it will be an uphill struggle to overturn that perception. Even if the actual interviews turn out to be pleasant, useful and sympathetic, they will be evaluated and discussed in the light of prior expectations.
So in human relationships, as in science, the observer is not separate from the system being observed. As soon as you ask a question it has an effect – big or small and often unpredictable – on the system being studied. The inquiry is already the intervention.
Therefore, as Professor Cooperrider points out, we need to think about not just the relevance and accuracy of the answers we get, but also the effect of the questioning process itself on the way the interviewees see the world, and on our relationships with them.
Some questions to ask yourself (in a way that strengthens your relationship with yourself, of course):
- What questions am I asking? How am I asking them?
- What is the effect of the questions on our relationship?
- In what directions are they directing people’s attention? How useful is this?
- Bearing in mind that any inquiry is already an intervention, what is the most useful I could ask at this time?