Why Do Negative Questions Prompt Negative Answers?

I recently read a 2017 HBR article about the gender gap in venture capital meetings. What stuck with me is that 85% of entrepreneurs responded to questions “in a manner that matched the question’s orientation.”

Let me explain this.

The researchers analyzed Q&A interactions between VCs and entrepreneurs to determine why female founders receive considerably less funding than their male peers.

They discovered that VCs posed different types of questions to male and female entrepreneurs: men were asked about the potential for gains (promotion questions) and women about the potential for losses (prevention questions).

Here’s an example from the HBR article:

“A promotion question would look into customer acquisition, whereas a prevention question would inquire about customer retention.”

The impact on the fund raising process is significant: entrepreneurs who were asked mostly promotion questions raised about seven times more than those who received prevention questions.

Circling back to my initial point, the overwhelming majority of founders responded to promotion questions with promotion answers, and to prevention questions with prevention answers.

This makes me wonder: do people have a natural tendency to respond in this way? If so, how can this be explained? Why are we so obedient to a question’s orientation? And does this occur in any situation or only under certain circumstances (for example, when the stakes are high)?

I’m wildly interested in this topic. If you happen to know about any psychological or neurological research on this, please send it my way!

A quick word on how female founders can close the gap in their next VC meeting. My first thought is that they could hugely benefit from techniques used in media training to reframe the question. Don’t respond too quickly and focus your answer on the Roman Column, as Jerry Weissman describes in his book In The Line of Fire.

I’ll write more on that in a later post.

Am I Allowed to Speak?

I’m fascinated by the role of power in meetings. Why? Because it can ruin our interactions. Consider the following situations:

  • A judge forcefully reprimands a juvenile defendant who’s eating chewing gum in “his” courtroom.

  • A doctor listens for 18 seconds to the patient’s story and then shares his diagnosis in a language that no one outside the medical world can understand.

What happens? Powers gets in the way of a meaningful interaction. The defendant will become defiant or shut down completely; the patient will not feel heard and will be less likely to follow the doctor’s prescriptions.

In organizations, power has many shapes and forms.

A good example is the power of agendas. They are useful because they provide structure and order to meetings, but they can be damaging if they’re enforced too rigidly. If checking agenda points becomes more important than the quality of the discussion, people might feel discouraged to ask questions and share important ideas that are outside the scope of the agenda.

Or worse: they become afraid to speak up because they fear repercussions or because they feel that their opinion is irrelevant. 

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the phenomenon of psychological safety, explains why this is a serious problem:

“If we aren’t hearing from people we may be missing out on a game-changing idea that could become part of a new product or a new service. Or we might miss an early warning of a threat in the market… The ability for people to come to work and speak up about what they know, what they don’t know, what they see, what they are worried about, is absolutely mission-critical to success in a knowledge economy.”

If you want to address this issue, the design of your meeting is a good place to start.

What’s your place at the table, who gets to speak first and how does the agenda come together? These questions matter.

A powerful example comes from author and surgeon Atul Gawande.

In the hospital where he works, each surgery is preceded by a discussion of the patient’s case. At the start, all attendants who are new to the meeting – from the anesthesiologist to the nurse, to the clinician and the surgeon – have to introduce themselves by stating their name and role.

As Gawande recently explained on The Knowledge Project podcast: “People who haven’t been able to introduce themselves are much less likely to say anything in the course of the meeting. But if you’ve actually been able to hear yourself in the room say: ‘I’m here, this is who I am’. That removes your barrier of wondering whether you’re even allowed to speak.”

How Can We Meet With More Intent?

“We accidentally curate who comes to the meeting, who has a seat at the table where decisions are made… What if we thought deeply about who sits across from us during the key conversations?” 

Seth Godin kicks off the week by asking an important question.

Our meetings are guided by habit. That's why even top CEOs, some of the most time-constrained creatures on this planet, are stuck to 1-hour meetings. Why can’t they be 45 minutes, 30 minutes or less?

The problem is that we tend to take our meetings for granted. We complain about them, but we don’t ask the right questions to make them better. That’s why they run too long, why they lack direction and why they fail to engage participants. According to the 2017 State of Enterprise Work survey, workers consider wasteful meetings the biggest challenge to getting their work done. 

As Godin rightfully asks, what if we did it with more intent?

The first step to becoming more conscious about how we meet is to define a clear purpose. In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker eloquently explains that “we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose.” A weekly team meeting is a weekly team meeting, which means the team gathers on the phone or in a physical room. But to what end?

If you think you are gathering “to talk, to brainstorm or to bond”, you have to try harder.

Before any gathering, meeting expert Mamie Kanfer Stewart suggests defining a desired outcome that starts with a noun, not a verb.

What’s the one thing you want to have at the end of the meeting that you don’t have right now? This could be a list of five ideas about how to tackle a certain problem, or an agreement on how to split the budget between two departments. A tip from Kanfer Stewart: make your desired outcome as specific as possible, so you can use it as a metric to determine if your meeting was successful.

When you know your meeting’s purpose, it’s much easier to decide who should be in the room to create a productive gathering. As Godin puts it: “Convenient should not be the dominant driver of this choice. Nor should existing protocol.”

So let’s break the habit and ask ourselves why we are meeting in the first place. It will save a lot of time and will eventually lead to happier employees and improved decision-making.