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  • Rich Haglund

Katherine Johnson and the courage to ask questions at work

This week, The Economist remembered Katherine Goble Johnson, the NASA mathematician made famous by the book and film, Hidden Figures, as "the girl who asked questions."


When she saw errors in calculations she understood the risk of raising the errors with the engineers, given the gender and racial prejudices prominent in her workplace. But Johnson knew the risks of not asking questions.

Nonetheless, this engineer’s calculation was wrong. If she did not ask the question, an aircraft might not fly, or might fly and crash. So, very carefully, she asked it. Was it possible that he could have made a mistake? He did not admit it but, by turning the colour of a cough drop, he ceded the point.

Johnson's diligence in asking questions and her relentless pursuit of accuracy won the respect of others, including John Glenn, who refused to go on a mission "until [Johnson] had checked the figures by hand against those of the newfangled computer."


The Economist noted that Johnson was driven to love what and to be constantly curious.

And she learned "that it is not dumb to ask a question; it is dumb not to ask it. Not least, because it might lead to the small but significant victory of making a self-proclaimed superior realise he can make a mistake."

So, what are you doing to make questioning welcome in your workplace?

What courage are you exercising to ask questions even when it doesn't feel safe? Have managers and team members in your organization recognized what's at stake if you don't ask questions?


Johnson's grace and humility are on full display in this interview from 2017:

Also see the short biography of Johnson on NASA's site.


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