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By Dr Biswajit

As a doctor, should you question your boss?

I remember vividly that particular day in school way back in the 90’s. Manjula Ma’am, our biology teacher, put down a closed box on the desk and turned towards the class with a twisted smile.

What’s in the box?

You could sit there and take guesses until the cows came home!

Or maybe you could make a start by asking questions. How big is the box? Is it big enough to contain a book? Or perhaps, why is it so light? What would happen if I shake it hard? Who wrapped the box with such lovely paper? Would I find a name written somewhere? Is it a parcel? Where did it come from? Or maybe like the last benchers would oft repeat: when is it all going to end?

That was my first introduction to the 5W’s and H. Immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem The Elephant’s Child:

I keep six honest serving-men They taught me all I knew Their names are What and Why and When  And How and Where and Who

Answers are not given but discovered. Answers owe their existence to questions. The most important skill that a student could pick up at school is to question anything and everything.

Medical literature is abound with studies that start with a hypothesis. Sounds like a mighty grand word, but in simple terms a hypothesis is nothing but a question. In fact, the right scientific temper starts with questioning and reasoning. As men of medicine (and by that I mean women as well!!), we cannot stay far away from questioning. Don’t we have Q&A sessions in most meetings?

So why should it be any different when you are questioning your boss?

The problem is acute in hierarchical societies. Most cleverly put forth by Malcolm Gladwell in The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes from the book Outliers. He explains in detail how the plane’s first officer failed to communicate decisively to the captain in spite of having noticed an issue sometime earlier resulting in the plane crashing. The author’s contention here being that out of respect for his superior he failed to effectively communicate to the captain thus failing to avert the crash. This theory has been refuted effectively by TK (Ask a Korean) in a blog post. Obviously culturalism cannot be the only reason behind a plane crash!!

But there’s no denying that questioning your boss in such societies is not taken lightly. The question is often read as questioning their authority, even when it is not meant to. And when superiors read it that way, the response is often not an answer.

Should you stop asking questions, then?

The answer is big NO! 

You must continue with the questions, if you want to learn further. You must employ tact when placing such questions.

Here are a few points to guide you:

  1. Keep it impersonal. Avoid asking in first person especially when the person is on a podium. Leave out the I’s and You’s out of your question. If at all, you must refer to a person, refer in the third person. 
  2. Points of reference. The above guideline is easily adhered to if you keep your focus on an issue rather than the person in question.
  3. Ask for the expert’s opinion. Opinions can be criticized easily but personal comments are not taken lightly.
  4. Pepper with appreciation. Start your question always with some appreciation. They are universally welcome. All bosses, in fact everyone responds favorably to appreciation. Medical reps are well trained in this art.
  5. Diffuse the tension. Subtle humor often works to lighten the mood. Best responses are obtained when people are smiling and not agitated. But don’t go overboard with your silliness. It can have the opposite effect.
  6. Take back your question. There is nothing wrong in doing this. Withdrawing a question is always appreciated and not criticized.

In public forums, discussing in the first person is taken as grandeur. The guy on the podium may be doing it. That’s his problem. Don’t make it yours. If you have something personal to share or request, its best made in private.

So keep firing questions at your boss if you want to keep learning but don’t use them to question his authority. Your authority on the subject will develop based on your command over the subject and the serious skill set you develop with time.