Responding to Employees’ Questions: Tell, Teach, or Ask?

Responding to Employees’ Questions: Tell, Teach, or Ask?

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Asking questions to gather knowledge is a significant learning method for workers at all levels of a company, and it a significant responsibility of the manager to help them. She might have tried one or more ways to solve the issue, but they did not resolve the situation. It does not matter what kind of challenge the employee is facing – it could be an imperfect product coming from the manufacturing process, a client complaint she can’t resolve, a line of programming code she can not get to work, or a medical procedure about which she is uncertain. Your goal as a manager ought to be not just to get the problem resolved, but also to help the employee learn how to solve similar problems in the future.

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

“Do not bother me.
“Just leave it together and I’ll look after it.”
“Why not ask Fred or Mary to show you the way to do that?”
“Here is what you will need to perform”
“Let me show you how to do that.”
“What do you think you should do?”
Let us look at each answer from the perspective of both the manager and the worker.
“Don’t bother me.
As a supervisor, you have a lot on your plate. Maybe you believe this employee already knows how to answer the question or solve the issue, but is relying too much on your assistance – maybe she doesn’t possess the self-assurance to address the issue without getting your approval first. Or, maybe, you already answered a similar query for this employee several times and believe that the worker should have the ability to extrapolate the right answer from other answers you have already given.
From your perspective as a manager, this answer will eliminate a potential time-sink and make it possible for you to work on matters you think more significant. 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 boss for not helping her. From the managerial perspective, this is not an optimal solution – the issue may not get solved, and the employee has learned nothing about how to fix such problems herself in the future, so she’ll continue coming to you each time she confronts a problem.
She can go to somebody else in the group to see if they could help her – maybe they have faced this situation before and know how to address the issue. This may or may not result in a successful resolution, depending on the knowledge and experience of the person she approaches and their willingness to help her.
She is able to abandon the issue, feeling that when the manager doesn’t think it significant enough to help her solve, it must not be crucial. This is not a very satisfying result for the employee – the problem is not getting solved and whoever relies on her work, be it a customer, a supplier, or any other internal or external person or group, is stuck with the problem and no solution. Additionally, it should not be a satisfying result for the boss – there’s a problem where your group is responsible that isn’t getting solved, and the worker feels that you’re not supporting her.
“Just leave it with me and I will take care of it.”
From the manager’s perspective, this might be the quickest solution. The supervisor knows how to solve the problem and can do it quickly without needing to take the time to explain the solution to the employee. Additionally, it ensures that the problem will get fixed correctly (at least from the manager’s view).
But how does the employee feel when this happens? He might be relieved that the doesn’t need to worry about the problem anymore and can move on to other work at which he feels more competent. But he may also feel dejected because he feels that he should have been able to solve the problem and by taking it to his manager, he’s admitting weakness. The last common sense invoked from this response it that the manager doesn’t value the employee enough to explain the response and teach him how to address these problems in the long run.

“Why don’t you ask Fred or Mary to demonstrate how you can do that?” As a manager, you’re recognizing that the employee should learn how to resolve the problem, and are delegating responsibility for teaching the worker to another of your employees. Assuming that Fred or Mary is willing and able to instruct the employee, this is a fantastic solution. It ensures that the problem will get solved (supposing that Fred and Mary know how), that the employee will learn the correct process, and it does not take time from your other managerial work.
“Here’s what you will need to do”
Simple. Straightforward. Gets the problem solved.
And, sometimes, it is essential. If there is an immediate danger or if the situation demands an immediate answer, this will find 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 are in the control room of a nuclear power plant and alarms start ringing, you don’t want to take a lot of time talking what you need to do – you want to act immediately.

For the employee, there is great relief – that the problem will now get solved. Assuming the employee retains the memory of the situation and the answer to that situation, she may be able to replicate the solution if the exact same problem arises again. But has the worker really learned anything? If a similar, but not identical situation arises in the future, will the worker be in a position to derive a solution without going to the manager again.

The best strategy for the manager in this situation is to get the problem solved by issuing a directive, but then 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 worker.

Here the supervisor is taking the time to teach the worker how to resolve 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 manager instructs the worker on how best to consider the issue, what alternatives to consider, and how to pick the best of these alternatives. This response takes more of the manager’s time than some of the previous responses, but it will result in more understanding and a greater probability that the next time the employee faces a similar situation, he or she’ll have the ability to diagnose and resolve the issue without taking more of the supervisor’s time.
“What do you feel you ought to do?”
This is a coaching response, instead of a directive or instruction response. It can be useful when:
You, as the manager, don’t know the answer or are interested in exploring possible solutions together with the worker.
You believe the employee can come up with a fantastic solution himself, but doesn’t possess the self-confidence to do so.
This response answers a question with a question and suggests a coaching approach. It is intended to empower the worker, as Judith Ross said in her Harvard Business Review blog. She suggests that managers who use empowering questions”create value in one of more of these manners:
They create clarity:”can you explain more about the circumstance?”
They construct better working relations: Instead of”Did you make your revenue goal?” ask “How have sales been going?”
They assist people think analytically and critically:”What are the consequences of going this route?”
They challenge assumptions:”What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation procedure?”
They make ownership of solutions:”According to your experience, what do you suggest we do here?” It does not suggest that the manager doesn’t know what to do, although coaching questions can help both the worker and the manager analyze an issue if neither of these has a ready solution. Asking coaching questions should not be used to induce an employee to pick the solution that the supervisor already has in mind – a manager shouldn’t keep asking the employee to suggest a solution and maintain the employee imagining at alternative answers until the employee comes up with the one the supervisor wants – that is not coaching, it’s manipulation.

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