Asking questions to gather knowledge is a significant learning way of workers 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 situation that she does not know how to handle. She might have tried one or more ways to solve the problem, but they didn’t resolve the circumstance. It does not matter what kind of challenge the worker is facing – it could be an imperfect product coming in the production process, a customer complaint she can’t resolve, a line of programming code she can’t get to work, or a medical procedure about which she is uncertain. Your goal as a manager ought to be not merely to get the problem resolved, but also to help the employee understand how to solve similar problems in the future.
These kinds of situations arise each day, often multiple times a day. So, as a manager, how do you respond? Here are some common responses that employees often hear from their managers.
“Do not bother me.
“Just leave it together and I’ll take care of it.”
“Why not ask Fred or Mary to show you the way to do that?”
“Here’s what you need to perform”
“Let me show you how you can do that.”
“What do you feel you should do?”
Let’s look at each response from the perspective of both the manager and the worker.
“Don’t bother me.
As a supervisor, you have a great deal 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 have the self-assurance to address the problem without getting your approval first. Or, maybe, you already answered a similar question for this employee several times and believe that the worker should have the ability to extrapolate the right answer from different answers you have already given.
From your perspective as a manager, this response will eliminate a potential time-sink and allow you to work on things you think more significant. Having received this response, the employee has three choices:
She can come up with a solution that may or may not work. If it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, she can blame her manager for not helping her. From your managerial perspective, this isn’t an optimal solution – the problem may not get solved, and the worker has learned nothing about how to solve such problems herself later on, so she will keep on coming to you each time she faces a problem.
She can go to somebody else in the group to find out if they can help her – perhaps they have faced this situation before and know how to solve the problem. This may or may not result in a successful resolution, based on the knowledge and expertise of the person she approaches and their willingness to help her.
She can abandon the problem, feeling that if the manager does not think it important enough to help her solve, it must not be very important. This isn’t a very satisfying result for the employee – the problem isn’t getting solved and whoever depends on her job, be it a customer, a supplier, or some other internal or external person or group, is stuck with the problem and no solution. It also should not be a satisfying result for the manager – there is a problem for which your group is responsible that isn’t getting solved, and the employee feels that you are not supporting her.
“Just leave it together and I’ll look after it.” The manager 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 guarantees that the problem will get fixed correctly (at least from the manager’s view).
But how does the worker feel when this occurs? He may be relieved that the doesn’t need to worry about the issue anymore and can move on to other work where he feels more capable. 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 is 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 solve these problems in the future.
“Why not ask Fred or Mary to show you how you can do that?”
This is a better answer than the first two. As a manager, you’re recognizing that the employee should learn how to resolve the issue, and are delegating responsibility for teaching the employee to another of your workers. Assuming that Fred or Mary is willing and able to instruct the worker, this is a good solution. It ensures that the problem will get solved (supposing that Fred and Mary know how), the worker will learn the proper procedure, and it doesn’t take time from the other managerial work.
“Here’s what you will need to perform”
Simple. Straightforward. Gets the problem solved.
And, sometimes, it is essential. When there is an immediate threat or if the situation requires an immediate response, this will find the job done. Similarly, if you are in the control room of a nuclear power plant and alarms start ringing, you don’t need to take a whole lot of time discussing what you should do – you want to act immediately.
For the employee, there is very good relief – that the issue will now get solved. Assuming the employee keeps the memory of the situation and the solution to that situation, she may be able to replicate the solution if the exact same problem arises again. But has the employee really learned anything?
The best course of action 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 issues in the future and how to derive the correct solution. That is, to teach the employee.
Here the manager is taking the opportunity to teach the worker how to solve problems, to develop the employee’s abilities for the future. The manager’s explanation can be brief (“Do these steps.”) Or it can take more time if the supervisor instructs the worker on how best to consider the issue, what alternatives to think about, and how to select the best of those alternatives. This reaction takes more of the manager’s time than any of the previous responses, but it will lead to more understanding and a greater likelihood that the next time the employee faces a similar situation, he or she will be able to diagnose and solve the issue without requiring more of the supervisor’s time.
“What do you feel you should do?”
This is a coaching response, instead of a directive or instruction response. It can be helpful when:
You, as the manager, don’t know the answer or are interested in exploring possible solutions with the worker.
You believe the employee can think of a fantastic solution himself, but does not have the self-confidence to do so.
This response answers a question with a question and suggests a coaching strategy. It’s intended to empower the worker, as Judith Ross stated in her Harvard Business Review blog. She suggests that managers who use empowering questions”create value in one of more of the following ways:
They create clarity:”can you explain more about this circumstance?”
They construct better working relations: Rather than”Can you make your sales goal?” ask “How have sales been going?”
They assist people think analytically and critically:”What are the consequences of going this route?”
They encourage breakthrough thinking:”Can that be achieved in any other way?”
They challenge assumptions:”What do you feel you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation procedure?”
They create ownership of solutions:”According to your experience, what do you suggest we do here?” It does not imply that the manager does not know what to do, although training questions can help both the worker and the supervisor analyze a problem if neither of these has a ready solution. Asking coaching questions should never be used to induce an employee to select the solution that the manager already has in mind – a manager shouldn’t keep asking the worker to indicate a solution and maintain the employee imagining at alternative solutions until the worker comes up with the one the supervisor wants – that is not coaching, it’s manipulation.