Controlling the answers by controlling the questions

Published by Peter on

On Sunday I attended a play. It was a somewhat surreal social commentary on politicians, capitalism, and war. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

One of the scenes in this play centered around this line: “They controlled the answers by controlling the questions.”

The play was at the Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, VT. Fascinating place.

The idea was that the people in power were able to control the behavior of the masses not through oppression, violence, or lies. They got the people to control themselves—and each other—by carving up, manipulating, and twisting truth.

They controlled which data the people were allowed to see, and they arranged it in a way that led people to very specific conclusions. And, because the people reached these conclusions on their own, they had no idea they’d been manipulated and deceived.

“A conclusion is where you stopped thinking.”

Various attributions. I saw it on a piece of art at the Bread & Puppet Museum

In this way, the people’s conclusions became their truth, and they ended up so invested in that truth that they completely lost the ability to see how backwards and manipulated it was. Thus, the people in control solidified their hold on power and wealth because the people themselves perpetuated it.

“They controlled the answers by controlling the questions.”

This got me thinking about leaders I’ve worked for, or worked with. A few—the narcissists and control freaks mostly—manipulated data and process in order to exert control and get people to do what they wanted.

But they weren’t always right, and the outcomes they created weren’t always good for the business.

Understanding truth requires disrupting assumptions

Good scientists know how to ask questions that challenge current assumptions and thinking. Science is concerned with deepening our understanding of what is real. To do that, we must be willing to question what we think is real, and we must be able to look at reality from new angles.

I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.

Richard Feynman

I love this quote. I agree with this quote. But I’m not writing about science today.

(I’m an engineer, not a scientist. If you want a Dudley who’s into science, go talk to my brother or my kid.)

I’m writing about leadership.

Answers that can’t be questioned?

For me, this quote means several things:

  • An open mind is preferable to a closed one.
  • Even the smartest, most knowledgeable person doesn’t know everything.
  • Authoritarianism and curiosity can’t truly coexist.

If all this is true (it is), then why would leaders clamp down? As with many tragic stories, it often comes down to ego and greed.

Greed leads people to want to control things to their own advantage. Ego makes people think they actually can.

The best leaders know a lot, but no one knows everything.

Business history is littered with stories of company founders—leaders at every level, really—who had a wild success followed by a spectacular blowout.

In many of these stories, the ultimate downfall can be traced to one of a few fatal flaws:

  • They believe their own superiority. Since they won once, they must be the smartest.
  • They need to look infallible. Otherwise, people might think they were just lucky the first time.
  • They are limited in their vision. They’re so stuck in the current structure, they have no ability to see beyond it.
See beyond.

A lot of leaders suffer one or more of the above from time to time. You don’t need to be a narcissist, tyrant, or control freak. You just need to be human.

Here’s the good news:

It’s shockingly easy not to be one of those leaders.

All you have to do is realize you don’t have all the answers, and invite new questions. No one person knows everything, all the time.

Making room for questions isn’t enough. They must be the right questions, asked in the right way, at the right time.

Admitting you don’t have every answer is only the first step. It’s equally important to know the difference between seeking truth, seeking validation, and exerting control.

A platform vendor I worked with once claimed their customers gave their product 93% “excellent” ratings. They believed in this 93% figure. There was no double counting, no error in their database. Their math was accurate.

The input to their calculations, however, was crap.

Because they wanted to get a customer’s impression of the entire transaction process, their survey popped up at the end of each completed transaction.

But by asking the satisfaction question only after the user had successfully completed the transaction, they were filtering out everyone who abandoned the process or whose transaction failed. Those people never saw the survey.

Whether they knew it or not, they were manufacturing a result they wanted by manipulating the question.

While this resulted in a number (93%) that looked great in the sales literature, that number was fictitious. They would have been foolish to base any business decisions on it. But because it felt very validating, they probably did.

It made them look great, even though the reality was their product needed serious updates… and their customers would have told them that, if they’d asked the right question at the right time.

Do you want truth, or are you trying to control perception and behavior?

To this day, I’m unsure whether the leaders of that company intentionally gamed their survey in order to get that result, or if they just didn’t understand the complexity of securing honest satisfaction data from users.

They seemed confused when I explained the flaw in their data collection, so I think it was an honest mistake.

I don’t know whether they changed their data collection process or learned anything from that meeting. They got bought by a competitor a year later. Perhaps they looked at the data in a new way and realized they were farther behind than they’d thought.

Over my 30+ year career I’ve worked with plenty of managers who manipulate and control people through the use of disingenuous or artfully crafted questions.

I am not a fan of manipulation or half-truths. I would rather evolve my understanding of reality than manipulate the data (control the questions) in an attempt to shape reality to how I would prefer it.

When you have a deeper understanding of the truth, you can make better-informed decisions. Being better informed usually leads to more confidence, more transparency, and more creativity.

So don’t be the type of leader who looks to control people and processes through controlling the questions that get asked.

You may be lucky and enjoy a wild success. But you may just as likely be headed for a spectacular failure. (I bet you can name a half dozen such failures without even thinking hard.)

Instead, be the type of leader who admits you don’t know everything and who invites questions in the spirit of making the best decisions possible.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. How would you like to be better, or prepare for the next step in your career?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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