Employees’ Questions: Tell, Teach, or Ask?

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Asking questions to collect knowledge is a significant learning method for employees at all levels of an organization, and it a major responsibility of the manager to help them. Let’s say that in the course of your daily work, an employee comes to you with a scenario she doesn’t know how to handle. She might have tried one or more ways to solve the issue, but they did not resolve the situation. It doesn’t matter what kind of challenge the worker is facing – it could be an imperfect product coming in the production process, a client complaint she can not resolve, a line of programming code she can’t get to work, or a medical process about which she is uncertain. Your goal as a supervisor ought to be not merely to get the problem resolved, but also to help the employee understand how to address similar problems in the future.

These kinds of situations arise every day, often multiple times a day. So, as a supervisor, how do you respond? Here are a few common responses that employees frequently hear from their managers.

“Do not bother me. Figure it out yourself.”
“Just leave it with me and I’ll take care of it.”
“Why don’t you ask Fred or Mary to show you how to do that?”
“Here’s what you need to do”
“Let me show you how to do that.”
“What do you think you should do?”
Let us look at each response from the perspective of both the supervisor and the employee.
“Do not bother me.
As a manager, you have a lot on your plate. Maybe you think this employee already knows how to answer the question or solve the issue, but is relying too much on your assistance – perhaps she doesn’t possess the self-assurance to solve the issue without getting your approval first. Or, perhaps, you already answered a similar query for this employee several times and feel that the employee needs to have the ability to extrapolate the ideal answer from different answers you have already given.
From your perspective as a manager, this answer will eliminate a possible time-sink and allow you to work on matters you think more important. Having received this answer, the employee has three choices:

She can come up with a solution that may or may not work. If it works, that is excellent. If it does not work, she can blame her manager for not helping her. From the managerial perspective, this isn’t an optimal solution – the problem may not have solved, and the employee has learned nothing about how to solve such problems herself later on, so she’ll continue coming to you every time she confronts a problem.
She can go to someone else in the group to see if they can help her – maybe they’ve faced this situation before and know how to solve the problem. This may or may not result in a successful resolution, depending on the knowledge and expertise of the individual she approaches and their willingness to help her.
She is able to abandon the problem, feeling that when the manager does not think it important enough to help her solve, it must not be very important. This isn’t a very satisfying outcome for the employee – the problem isn’t getting solved and whoever depends on her job, be it a client, a supplier, or some other internal or external person or group, is stuck with the issue and no solution. Additionally, it shouldn’t be a satisfying result for the manager – there is a problem for which your group is responsible that is not getting solved, and the worker feels that you’re not supporting her.
“Just leave it with me and I’ll take care of it.” The manager knows how to solve the issue and can get it done quickly without needing to take the time to explain the solution to the employee. Additionally, it guarantees that the problem will get fixed correctly (at least from the supervisor’s view).
But how does the worker feel when this happens? He may be relieved that the doesn’t have to worry about the issue anymore and can move on to other work at which he feels more competent. But he may also feel dejected because he feels he should have been able to address the problem and by taking it to his manager, he’s admitting weakness. The last common feeling invoked from this reaction it that the manager doesn’t value the worker enough to explain the answer and teach him how to address such problems in the future.

“Why not ask Fred or Mary to demonstrate the way you can do that?” As a manager, you are recognizing that the employee needs to learn how to solve the problem, and are delegating responsibility for teaching the employee to another of your workers. Assuming that Fred or Mary is willing and able to teach the worker, this is a fantastic solution. It ensures that the problem will get solved (supposing that Fred and Mary know how), the worker will learn the proper process, and it does not take time from the other managerial work.
“Here’s what you will need to perform”
Simple. Straightforward. Gets the problem resolved.
And, sometimes, it is essential. When there is an immediate threat or if the situation requires an immediate answer, this will get the job done. When I had a heart attack and was at the hospital emergency room and my heart stopped, I did not want the doctors to have a discussion about what to do. Similarly, if you’re in the control room of a nuclear power plant and alarms start ringing, you do not need to take a lot of time talking what you should do – you want to act immediately.

For the employee, there’s great relief – the problem will now get solved. Assuming the employee retains the memory of this situation and the answer to that circumstance, she may be able to replicate the solution if the exact same problem arises again. But has the worker really learned anything?

The best strategy for the supervisor in this situation is to get the problem solved by issuing a directive, but to sit down with the employee to explain how to diagnose similar problems in the future and how to derive the appropriate solution. That is, to teach the employee.

This is a great solution. Here the manager is taking the time to teach the worker how to solve problems, to develop the worker’s skills for the future. The manager’s explanation can be brief (“Do these steps.”) Or it can require more time if the supervisor instructs the worker on the best way to think about the issue, what alternatives to consider, and how to select the best of those alternatives. This reaction takes more of the supervisor’s time than some of the earlier answers, but it will result in more understanding and a greater likelihood that the next time the employee faces a similar situation, he or she’ll have the ability to diagnose and solve the problem without taking more of the supervisor’s time.
“What do you think you ought to do?”
This is a training response, rather than a directive or instruction response. It can be helpful when:
You, as the manager, do not know the answer or are interested in exploring possible answers with the employee.
You feel that the employee can think of a good solution himself, but does not have the self-confidence to do so. It is intended to empower the worker, as Judith Ross stated in her Harvard Business Review blog. She suggests that managers who use enabling questions”create value in one of more of these manners:
They create clarity:”can you explain more about this situation?”
They construct better working relations: Rather than”Can you make your revenue goal?” ask “How have sales been going?”
They encourage breakthrough thinking:”Can that be done in any other way?”
They challenge assumptions:”What do you feel you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”
They make ownership of solutions:”Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”
The point of training is to help the employee develop thinking, problem analysis, and decision-making abilities. It does not imply that the manager doesn’t know what to do, although coaching questions can help both the employee and the manager analyze a problem if neither of these has a ready solution. Asking coaching questions should not be used to induce an employee to select the solution that the manager already has in mind – a supervisor shouldn’t keep asking the employee to suggest a solution and keep the worker imagining at alternative answers until the worker comes up with the one that manager wants – that’s not coaching, it is manipulation.

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