Conversation Personal Branding

Asking questions can destroy your professional image

In the beginning of my career, when I started out as a junior software engineer, I believed that asking a lot of questions was the only way to succeed in the workplace. I wanted to get as much information as I could because that would allow me to be effective, to become a part of the team. My primary goal was to be able to participate in discussions and to understand complex IT systems. I wanted to be like one of the senior teammates.

My motto was simple and reasonable: “the more questions I ask, the more knowledge I gain”. So I was asking plenty of questions and I pursued anyone who could help me achieve my goal. However, I didn’t realize that knowledge wasn’t the only factor that could impact my personal brand. I wasn’t aware of how irritating I was to my senior colleagues until I became one.

“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

Pierre Marc Gaston de Lévis

Being unprepared

The overwhelming number of questions directed at my colleagues was just one issue that didn’t make me a great team player. The other problem had to do with the quality of my questions. I would sometimes bomb coworkers with my questions without any previous preparation, which resulted in a poor description of my problem. After all, how would you help someone if you got a question like this:

don't be unprepared

As a result, I was flooded with more precise follow-up questions that made me look like a fool, especially when I wasn’t able to answer instantly. Mostly, people were just looking at me with pity while trying to elicit more details from me.

What doesn’t work for you?
– Did you try to google that?
– Was it working before?
– Did you check the configuration?

Asking for help without any preparation is the most evident sign of laziness. In my case it looked like I didn’t spend any time investigating my problem and I just wanted someone else to solve it for me. To others it seemed like I needed a blue collar worker to do the job, not a mentor to help me.

After a couple of questions like these, people would start feeling this “wing-it” attitude. So before asking for help, I suggest you spend some time trying to gather more detailed information about your problem. This advice will save you from looking foolish in the eyes of your colleagues and it will help you maintain your professional image.

Being imprecise

If you are not able to describe a problem precisely, it means you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s a deadly sin that can easily destroy your professional reputation. As a junior I was always struggling to specify my questions. I kept flooding my colleagues with tremendous amount of unrelated information, most of which was actually irrelevant and it just distorted the whole picture.

don't be imprecise

Excuse me, I can’t open the file with data. I saw an email which said that it happened to other people before but now it doesn’t work when I do it. I’m using Excel 2016. I need to update the data and create a report for Adam. He asked me to finish it before Friday. Maybe I have installed a wrong plugin or something. I don’t know what’s going on.

Question that I’ve heard

Adding too much information to the description of a problem doesn’t make it easier for others to understand. It just makes the issue vague. You need to be aware that when you walk up to someone to ask for their help, you take them away from their current task. You’re a distraction in someone’s day with no benefit to them. 

And when you start off without any introduction or context, you will see a confused face looking back at you and you will just end up hearing a long “hmm” sound. Remember to be as precise as you can in order not to confuse others. The structure of a problem description is similar to a story. So you can use storytelling techniques to make your problem more understandable. 

Starting without context

What’s the point of telling your colleague all the details of your problem if he doesn’t have the bigger picture? He doesn’t know what you’re trying to achieve. 

don't start without context

I’m trying to upload my Excel file in the report window and I’m not able to choose the limit option to generate the final result. I’m getting some weird error message with 10011 error code. I haven’t seen it before. Could you help me?

Worse approach

Your respondent may be completely puzzled by such a question simply because he doesn’t know your motivation. What are you working on? Which application are you using and what kind of a report are you trying to create? It’s like with stories. Without context they don’t make any sense. Instead of getting quickly to the details of the problem you should briefly familiarize your listener with the bigger picture.

I’m trying to generate a yearly salary report in application X. I uploaded an input file and while choosing the option to limit the number of records I got a 10011 error. Do you know what I’m doing wrong?

Better approach

The number of words is similar to the first version but now the other person is able to understand what you’re trying to achieve. Let people absorb your problem slowly. Start with the general information and then, if necessary, go into the details of the issue. 

Conclusion

Experts like to solve problems but you need to remember that they are usually very busy, so you have to make sure not to waste their time. You don’t want to be perceived as a pain in their neck, which is why you should spend some time on the issue before asking your questions.

Get prepared beforehand and make sure you know how to define your problem. It’s like sharing a post in the form of a question on an internet forum. If you don’t know how to put it in words, you don’t post it.

Those simple rules can change the way others see you. They will help you become a team player instead of a clumsy junior who’s not able to understand what he’s doing.


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