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

Responding to Employees' Questions Tell, Teach, or Ask

Employees at all levels of an organisation learn a lot by asking questions and the manager has a responsibility to support them. Let’s suppose that an employee calls you during the day with a problem that she is unable to solve. The employee may have tried several solutions to the problem but none of them worked. It doesn’t really matter what type of problem the employee is facing. It could be a defective product, a customer complaint, a line in programming code that she can’t access, or a medical procedure she’s uncertain about. As a manager, your goal should not be to resolve the problem but to also help employees solve similar problems in the future.

These situations are common every day, and often occur multiple times per day. How can you manage these situations? These are some of the most common responses employees hear from managers.

“Don’t bother” It’s easy to figure it out.
“Leave it with me, and I’ll take good care of it.”
“Why not ask Fred and Mary to show us how to do this?”
“Here are the things you should do”
“Let’s see how I can help you do that.”
“What do YOU think you should do?”
Let’s examine each response from both the employee and manager’s perspectives.

“Don’t bother” It’s easy to figure it out.

You have a lot to do as a manager. You might think that the employee knows the answer to the question. However, she is depending too heavily on you for help. Perhaps you’ve answered the same question several times for the employee and feel the employee should be capable of extrapolating the correct answer from the answers you have given.
This answer, from your point of view as a manager will eliminate a time-sink and let you focus on more important matters. The employee now has three options.

She may be able to come up with a solution. It’s great if it works. She can also blame her manager if it fails. This is not a good solution from a managerial perspective. The problem might not be solved and the employee may not have learned how to solve similar problems in the future. She will still come to you for help every time she encounters a problem.
She may be able to reach out to another member of the group to seek help. Perhaps they have been in this same situation before and can help her. This could lead to a successful resolution depending on her knowledge and experience and the willingness of the person she approaches.
The employee can decide to let the problem go, assuming that the manager does not consider it important enough for her to solve. This is not a satisfying result for the employee. The problem isn’t being solved, and anyone who relies on her work (whether it be a customer, supplier, or any other person or group) is left with no solution. The manager should not be satisfied with the result. If there is a problem in your organization that isn’t being solved, the employee feels like you aren’t supporting her.

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“Leave it with me, and I’ll take good care of it.”

This may be the fastest solution for the manager. Managers are able to quickly solve problems and communicate the solution to employees. This also guarantees that the problem will be solved correctly, at least according to the manager.
How does the employee react when this happens? The employee may feel relieved that he doesn’t need to worry about the problem and can now move on to work where he feels more competent. He may feel disappointed because he didn’t solve the problem. By taking the matter to his manager, he might also feel weak. This response may also indicate that the manager does not value the employee enough for him to give the solution and teach him how to do it in the future.

“Why not ask Fred and Mary to show us how to do this?”

This is a better solution than the previous two. You are acknowledging that the employee must learn how to solve the problem and delegating the responsibility to another employee. This is a good solution, provided Fred and Mary are willing and able teach the employee. This ensures that the problem is solved (assuming Fred and Mary are able to do so), and that the employee learns the correct procedure. It doesn’t take away from your managerial duties.

“Here are the things you should do”

Simple. Straightforward. It solves the problem.
Sometimes, this is even necessary. This will be used if there is an immediate threat or a situation that requires immediate action. When I suffered a heart attack, and was admitted to the hospital emergency department, my heart stopped. I did not want doctors to discuss what to do. I needed to act immediately. You don’t want time spent in the control room at a nuclear power station when alarms start to ring. You need to do something immediately.

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The employee feels a great deal of relief that the problem is now solved. If the employee keeps the memory of the problem and the solution, she might be able repeat the solution in the future. But did the employee learn anything? Will the employee be able find a solution if he or she encounters a similar situation in the future?

In this instance, the best thing for the manager to do is to resolve the problem by issuing a directive. Then, sit down with your employee and discuss how to identify similar problems in the future. This is to help the employee.

“Let’s see how I can help you do that.”

This is a wonderful solution. The manager takes the time to help the employee solve problems and to improve their skills for the future. Sometimes the manager will explain by saying “Do these steps.” It may take longer if the manager explains the situation in detail. Although this response will take more time from the manager than the others, it will provide more information and increase the likelihood that the employee will be able solve the problem the next time they face it.

“What do YOU think you should do?”

This is not a directive or teaching response but a coaching response. It is useful in the following situations:
Managers don’t always know the answer, but they are open to discussing possible solutions with employees.
Although you feel the employee could come up with a solution, you don’t have the confidence or self-assurance to do so.
This answer answers a question by asking a question. It also implies a coaching approach. As Judith Ross explains in her Harvard Business Review blog, it is intended to empower employees. Managers who ask empowering questions can “create value in at least one of these ways,” she suggests.
They provide clarity: “Can you explain more about the situation?”
They build better working relationships: Instead of asking “Did your sales target reach?” Ask “How has sales been going?”
They encourage people to think critically and analytically: “What are your consequences for going this route?”
They encourage people to think and look at things in new, unexpected ways. “Why did it work?”
They encourage innovation thinking: “Can that not be done in another way?”
They question assumptions: “What are you going to lose if your share the responsibility for the implementation?”
They take ownership of the solutions.
Coaching is designed to improve thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills. However, it does not mean that the manager isn’t able to help the employee solve a problem. Coaching questions can be helpful for both the employee as well as the manager. Coaching questions should not be used to force employees to choose the solution they already know. A manager should not ask the employee for suggestions and then keep them guessing until the manager comes up with the best solution. This is manipulation, not coaching.
Tell, Teach, and Ask

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When your employee comes to you with questions, will you answer, tell, or teach them? Are you going to be strict and make it difficult for them to follow your instructions? Or will you give the employee the opportunity to learn from you, coach, or teach them, so they can develop their skills in the future. Your group will benefit from more coaching and teaching time.



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