When I was a kid, I asked a lot of questions. Okay, I still ask a lot of questions, but, apparently, back then I really maxed out on the question asking. An aunt once said, “Everything is what, why, where, how! Don’t you know how to say a sentence that’s not a question?” I didn’t see what was wrong with that – how else was I to know the answers to the questions in my head if I did not ask them out loud? But one day someone said to me, “Hey, be careful with all those questions. Don’t you know that curiosity killed the cat?”
Well, no, I did not but that question raised a whole lot of other questions. How did the cat get killed? What was the cat curious about? What did it have to do with me? I had seen many cats in my life as, for example, my grandmother had several. However, I had never seen a cat that seemed particularly curious about anything. I did know enough to recognize, from the tone of voice, that this person did not want me asking any more questions, so the mystery of the cat’s curiosity and its ensuing death remained.
Curiosity killed the cat. This is what I have figured out since then. Do you know who says that? People who don’t want to be questioned. Do you know what kind of people those are? Those are people who are either:
- People with huge egos who think they are too good at what they do to be questioned; or
- People who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t want other people to know that; or
- People who don’t want you to know what they are doing.
All three types of people are dangerous in their own ways.
The first group of people, the big egos, can be difficult to deal with, especially if those people are your supervisors. Somehow you have to convince the egos that it is in their best interest to have a check. The easy route is to become an enabler to the supervisor and to keep your head down and do as you are told. What should keep you from doing that is the thought of the consequences of your silence. Remember that usually the mistakes of people in positions of power tend to have large and far-reaching effects. Sometimes people have been doing their work for many years and believe that they are so good at what they do that no one can tell them better. You just have to find a diplomatic way of asking your questions. You know what, just because you are asking it doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it may just mean that you want to know more about what is going on.
When I worked in audit, I remember being told, a few times, to audit a section of a client’s books by following “last year’s audit papers”. I would read the work papers and sometimes I would have questions about why a particular step was taken. There were occasions when, probably because of time pressures, the audit manager would tell me to just do the work. Now, I am not saying that these managers did not know what they were doing but I will say that their reactions sure made it look as though they did not know what they were doing. As a person who feels that there are too few hours in a day to waste them doing work for no good reason, I would insist that my questions, about why I had to do something, were answered. At times the explanations made sense and I was able to a better job, knowing what I was doing and why I was doing it. On other occasions, the conversations led to our tweaking the audit approach in order to better achieve our goal. There are times when I ask what people are doing and why they are doing it and they can’t give a reason beyond, “this is what they told me to do, so I’m doing it.” Again, talking through the work with them tends to result in work being performed at a higher level because now the people know why are doing something so they know what to look for and what results to aim for.
The last group of people, the ones who don’t want you to know what they are doing, are the slickest group of all. Their whole approach is to either make you feel as though your questions have been answered or that the explanations are so complicated that you couldn’t possibly understand. They work very hard to keep you from getting answers to their questions. Some employ the tactic of being so scary and standoffish that you don’t even want to ask them how their weekend was, let alone what they are doing and why. Others try to make their work sound super complicated and they scramble your brains with fancy words and technical terms until you say “oh right, okay” and wander off, hoping that you didn’t look too stupid in the conversation. They could also make their work sound so boring that you start to fall asleep in the middle of the second sentence of their explanation, and leave them to do what you couldn’t possibly stay awake long enough to care about. People like this are one of the reasons why frauds can go on for months or even years. They become so practiced at deception and avoiding being properly questioned about their work, that they can just keep on doing what they have been doing with virtually no fear of being caught. Their ideal environment is one where no one is asking questions.
I like to ask questions. When I am at work, one of the biggest reasons I ask questions is to help me do a better job. All too often, questions are not asked and a task ends up being performed several times over. There are times when I ask questions and I end up finding out about documents or other information that make my work much simpler. Also, I love it when I ask questions and I find out that the work has already been done, the information is available and I have time to tackle a new, unresolved issue. Don’t be afraid to ask, and ask, and ask. Your questions could make your work more productive, uncover fraud or error or just make life more interesting because you have learned something new. And, please, don’t sentence a child to years of fruitless wondering about a cat’s curiosity. Please.