It was an innocent question. I don’t want to embarrass anyone about actual recent events by relating the specifics. What matters is that it was a simple inquiry that should have been readily answerable.

I didn’t get a ready answer. It turned out I’d asked a tar-baby question.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, the original tar baby had its origins in African-American folklore. It was a doll made out of tar by Br’er Fox (the bad guy) to trap Br’er rabbit (the good guy). A tar baby is anything that’s easy to grab but hard to let go of once you’ve grabbed it.

[Because it matters: “Tar baby” has been accused of being a racial slur. Given its origins and meaning it isn’t, and given the lack of evocative synonyms I’m unwilling to give it up.]

I’d sent my question to everyone who might plausibly have known the answer. Several –probably the ones who figured they were responsible for answering — sent me responses that weren’t answers. After a couple of rounds of trying to clarify my question, it became clear that while someone should have figured it out quite some time ago, nobody ever had.

My question was a tar baby — having grabbed the topic I couldn’t let it go.

Except that yes, I could.

So can you. If you find yourself holding on to a tar-baby question, there’s a simple, although unsatisfying solution: Stop.

Don’t even announce that you’re stopping. Just stop. Unlike actual tar, you can let go of your email chain any time you want to through the simple expedient of not clicking the Reply/Reply All button. You won’t experience the satisfaction of closure, but you will experience the satisfaction of not wasting any more time on a losing proposition.

There’s a variation on this theme — asking a question when you know nobody can answer it. It’s a way to suggest someone should come up with the answer without volunteering to be that person, as you would if you were to recommend it instead.

There’s another variation on the same theme. Call it Q&A Dissonance. It’s when you ask a question and get an answer to a different question that sounds something like your question but wasn’t your question.

Usually, Q&A Dissonance is the result of the ambiguity inherent in human communication. Try to clarify in a Reply. If that doesn’t do the job, pick up the phone, or, if possible, walk over to where the other person sits and hash it out face to face.

Email might be the most efficient communication channel when you’re measuring efficiency in terms of your time budget, but the printed word lacks many of the nuances vocalization provides; voice-to-voice is far less robust than the body language and facial expressions that accompany face-to-face conversations; and nothing beats sharing a whiteboard.

There’s a variation on the Q&A Dissonance variation that’s far less benign. Call it Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing. (Or don’t — call it anything you like. I won’t mind.)

I found myself on the receiving end of Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing quite a few years ago when one of my then-employer’s executives came to town for a meet-and-greet with a large program team I was part of.

After his opening remarks he opened things up for questions. I asked one, about our company’s growth strategies. He answered … well, no, he didn’t. He instead lectured me about my sense of entitlement, my not being willing to make sacrifices to further the company’s success, and a few other choice items, all of which were centered on his personal history and virtues as models for me to emulate. “Did that answer your question?” he finished?

Well, no, but it answered two questions that were far more important: “Do you have any interest in what those of us here on the ground think?” and “Please reveal something important about your character.” Not that I had the presence of mind and absence of good sense to say that. I believe my eloquent reply was a mumbled, “close enough.”

Which brings us to the point of this week’s missive, to the extent there is a point: Every question is more than a request for information. Questions are also useful tools for making suggestions, and opportunities to build working relationships.

Beyond that, they call attention to whoever asks them. Sometimes you want that, as when someone who hears you ask it might think, “Now that’s a perceptive question.”

Know your audience before you call attention to yourself, though. Because for everyone who appreciates the value of perceptive questions there are probably a dozen who ask … themselves … a very different question:

Who do you think you are?

Minefield? Hardly.

The realm of human relationships in the workplace is supposedly just such a place.

But it isn’t. In a minefield you don’t know where the explosive devices are buried. You don’t even know any are buried there until someone steps on one.

In the workplace, though, if you don’t know where every mine is buried by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Just in case:

> Physical contact. A handshake is the limit. If you think your colleague really needs a hug, you might be right. Needing one from you, though, is another matter. Unless you’re absolutely certain a hug from you would be welcome, keep it verbal, not physical.

> Repeated, unwanted attention. It’s a myth that one employee can’t ask another employee out for a date because that might constitute unwanted attention. The fact of the matter is, nobody on the offering side of the equation can know if their attention is wanted until it’s offered. Have you asked and been turned down? Now you know. Don’t ask again.

> Any hint of romantic intentions in a power relationship. Power = compulsion whether intended or not, and it isn’t okay no matter what signals you think you’re receiving.

> Overt sexual attention: Don’t. If you find this surprising, or you disagree, you need more help than KJR can give you.

> Any hint of tribal disparagement. If you sincerely believe a racial, ethnic, political, or religious group has undesirable characteristics, you’re welcome to your belief. You aren’t welcome to express it. The same goes for your thoughts about human genders and what they’re like. You also aren’t allowed to express your thoughts in the form of a joke — no matter how funny you’re sure it is — or to use pejorative identifiers in conversation, or to use “Jew” as a verb.

> Don’t call grown women “girls.” If you’re a guy, it’s demeaning. If you’re a woman, you’re encouraging guys to call them girls.

> Anger mismanagement. We in the workforce are human beings, not robots … at least, not yet. Any of us, in a given circumstance, might find ourselves afflicted with TSD (tantrum spectrum disorder). People who suffer from TSD express their unhappiness on a scale that has rage at one end and annoyance or irritation at the other. Except that if the expression is anywhere beyond irritation it’s the people around us who suffer.

That’s about it. Except that it isn’t, because everything above this paragraph is about what you shouldn’t do. Which is fine and useful if you want to avoid running afoul of Human Resources, which surprisingly enough tends to get these about right in most organizations and circumstances.

But … and this is, if you’ll forgive the expression, a big but … while the above advice keeps you out of trouble and the company out of court, it has nothing to do with career success.

Quite the opposite, if you focus your attention on staying out of trouble you’ll ignore the factor that, more than any other, determines your professional success: how well you manage your interpersonal relationships.

If you’ve read the KJR Manifesto (Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, and if you haven’t … seriously? What’s wrong with you?) … if you’ve read it you understand the two ironclad relationship rules: Relationships Precede Process and Relationships Outlive Transactions. That is, no business process can survive distrust among those responsible for making it work. And very few battles are worth winning if they do serious damage to your working relationship with the people you’re battling with.

I know people who think “being professional” means keeping their personalities in abeyance, sharing nothing of themselves with their teammates, and in general doing their best impression of Commander Spock, only without the hand gesture and “live long and prosper” expression of goodwill.

If this is you … if you think you have to rein it in so far that nobody knows who you are and what you’re really thinking and feeling … it’s time for a re-think. There certainly are times and situations where Spockism is the best choice you have. In particular, when those around you are becoming increasingly excitable, the contrast alone will serve you in good stead.

Also, see TSD, above: If you find yourself sliding beyond irritation to exasperation and beyond, Vulcanizing yourself is just the ticket.

But for day-to-day interactions with your staff, managers, and peers, strong positive relationships are far superior to neutral ones.

So be a person. Not only will it make you more successful, it will make your days more pleasant as well.