How to Respond to Employees’ Questions: Teach, Tell or Ask

Asking questions to gather knowledge is a major learning method for employees at all levels of an organization, and is a major responsibility of the manager to help them.

Q and A

Let’s say that in the course of your daily work, an employee comes to you with a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle. She may have tried one or more ways to solve the problem, but they didn’t resolve the situation.

It doesn’t matter what kind of challenge the employee is facing – it could be an imperfect product coming from the manufacturing 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 should be not just to get the situation resolved, but also to help the employee learn how to solve similar problems in the future.

These types of situations arise every day, often multiple times in a day. So, as a manager, how do you respond? Here are some common responses that employees often hear from their managers.

“Don’t 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’s look at each response from the perspective of both the manager and the employee.

1. “Don’t bother me. Figure it out yourself.”

As a manager, you have a lot on your plate. Perhaps you think this employee already knows how to answer the question or solve the problem, but is relying too much on your assistance – perhaps she doesn’t have the self-assurance to solve the problem without getting your approval first. Or, perhaps, you already answered a similar question for this employee several times and feel that the employee should be able to extrapolate the right answer from other answers you have already given.

From your perspective as a manager, this answer will get rid of a potential time-sink and allow you to work on matters you think more important. Having received this response, the employee has three options:

  • 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 is not an optimal solution – the problem may not get solved, and the employee has learned nothing about how to solve such problems herself in the future, so she will continue coming to you every time she faces a problem.
  • She can go to someone else in the group to see 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, depending on the knowledge and experience of the person she approaches and their willingness to help her.
  • She can abandon the problem, feeling that if the manager doesn’t think it important enough to help her solve, it must not be very important. This is not a very satisfying result for the employee – the problem isn’t getting solved and whoever relies on her work, 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 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 employee feels that you are not supporting her.

2. “Just leave it with me and I’ll take care of it.”

From the manager’s perspective, this may be the quickest solution. The manager knows how to solve the problem and can get it done quickly without having to take the time to explain the solution to the employee. It also 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 may be relieved that he doesn’t have 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 is admitting weakness. The last common feeling invoked from this response it that the manager doesn’t value the employee enough to explain the answer and teach him how to solve such problems in the future.

3. “Why don’t you ask Fred or Mary to show you how to do that?”

This is a better response than the first two. 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 employees. Assuming Fred or Mary is willing and able to teach the employee, this is a good solution. It ensures that the problem will get solved (assuming Fred and Mary know how), that the employee will learn the correct procedure, and it doesn’t take time from your other managerial work.

4. “Here’s what you need to do”

Simple. Straightforward. Gets the problem solved.

And, sometimes, it is necessary. If there is an immediate danger or if the situation requires an immediate response, this will get the job done. When I had a heart attack and was in the hospital emergency room and my heart stopped, I didn’t want the doctors to have a discussion about what to do. I needed immediate action. 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 discussing what you should do – you need to act immediately.

For the employee, there is great relief – the problem will now get solved. Assuming the employee retains 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? If a similar, but not identical situation arises in the future, will the employee be able to derive a solution without going to the manager again?

The best course of action for the manager in this situation is to first 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 correct solution. That is, to teach the employee.

5. “Let me show you how to do that.”

This is a great solution. Here the manager is taking the time to teach the employee how to solve problems, to develop the employee’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 employee on how to think about the problem, what alternatives to consider, and how to select the best of those alternatives. This response takes more of the manager’s time than any of the earlier responses, but it will result in more learning and a greater probability that the next time the employee faces a similar situation, he or she will be able to diagnose and solve the problem without taking more of the manager’s time.

6. “What do you think you should do?”

This is a coaching response, rather than a directive or teaching response. It can be useful when:

You, as the manager, don’t know the answer or are interested in exploring possible solutions with the employee.

You feel that the employee can come up with a good solution himself, but doesn’t have the self-confidence to do so.

This response answers a question with a question and implies a coaching approach. It is designed to empower the employee, 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:

  1. They create clarity: “can you explain more about this situation?”
  2. They construct better working relations: Instead of “Did you make your sales goal?” ask “How have sales been going?”
  3. They help people think analytically and critically: “What are the consequences of going this route?”
  4. They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways: “Why did this work?”
  5. They encourage breakthrough thinking: “Can that be done in any other way?”
  6. They challenge assumptions: “What do you think you will lose if you start sharing responsibility for the implementation process?”
  7. They create ownership of solutions: “Based on your experience, what do you suggest we do here?”

The point of coaching is to help the employee develop thinking, problem analysis, and decision-making skills. 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 them has a ready solution.

Asking coaching questions should never be used to force an employee to select the solution that the manager already has in mind – a manager should never keep asking the employee to suggest a solution and keep the employee guessing at alternative solutions until the employee comes up with the one the manager wants – that’s not coaching, it’s manipulation.

Tell, Teach, or Ask

Next time one of your employees comes to you with a question, will you tell, teach, or ask? Will you be directive so that the demand on your time is minimal, or will you take the time to teach or to coach the employee, to develop the employee for the future. The more time you can spend teaching and coaching, the better your group’s results will be.

About the Author

Dan Tobin has more than 30 years of experience in the training industry as a training manager, corporate university dean, consultant, writer, and speaker. He continues to be a thought leader on how to tie all learning efforts directly to corporate goals. He has written six books on corporate learning strategies and has given workshops and keynotes on 5 continents.

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