Small Questions Can Lead to Big Gains At Work

Mark Sagor


Question MarkIf you take the pleasure of getting things done at work and multiply that by the pleasure of getting better at what you do, the result is improved job satisfaction, higher motivation and diminished levels of stress.

It’s a simple formula: we come to work to get something done and when we do our level of well-being and engagement increase. A recent Gallup poll clearly demonstrated that the more we get to use our strengths at work the happier and more productive we become.

The fly in the ointment, as the poll reveals, is that most of us are not using our strengths enough at work to capture these mood, health andproductivity benefits.

This is a big problem for organizations as well as for employees.

I have written elsewhere about what organizations and managers can do to help employees make progress on their most meaningful assignments.

Today I want to focus on a surprising and subtly powerful technique that individual employees can use to get more done and improve their skills at work: Asking Small Questions.

Asking Small Questions is a central component of a suite of behavioral change techniques developed by Dr. Robert Maurer. This approach can be used to make changes in health related behaviors and personal relationships as well as for making improvements in workplace performance.

So how does it work?

Asking Small Questions is a technique for tiptoeing around the brain’s built-in resistance to new behavior. It builds on the truth contained in Lao Tzu’s ancient wisdom: “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.

So for example, if your goal is to become more effective at work, you might ask yourself a small question like: “If improving my performance at work was my first priority what could I do differently today?”

We are accustomed to receiving global recommendations on how to improve our productivity (work harder, be more organized, use our time more effectively etc.) but this sort of advice does not readily engage us because it directs us to an ultimate goal not to the first step.

Breaking ultimate goals into smaller questions circumvents resistance, particularly the “flight or fight” response underlying the fear of change and failure.

By asking small enough questions you take failure off the table and you introduce creativity and playfulness into your daily routines. Our brain loves problems (think about crossword puzzles and sodoku) which provide small incremental challenges.

What can I do differently today to improve my performance at work?

Once you get your brain focused on the right small question it will chew on it like a bulldog and engage your creative faculties and eventually spit out some answers.

Like Google, the brain’s main criterion for storage and retrieval is repetition so if you keep posing the same question long enough the brain is compelled to find answers.

Finding answers is rewarding and motivates you to search for additional small improvements.

Asking small questions is a strategy for overcoming obstacles to change like being overwhelmed by too much to do or feeling blocked by others (managers or coworkers).

The technique is so deceptively simple you may be tempted to underestimate its effectiveness.


Try it and discover the surprising power of this tactic to promote continuous and sustainable improvement.

If you are still not convinced, ask yourself another small question: What have I got to lose by experimenting with this technique?