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

Asking questions to gather knowledge is a major 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 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.

“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.

“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 the 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.

“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 that 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 that Fred and Mary know how), that the employee will learn the correct procedure, and it doesn’t take time from your other managerial work.

“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.

“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.

“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:

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

Health Care in America Needs an Update

American health care needs an updated treatment plan. The quality of care is not the issue as we have some of the best medical care in the world. People will fly in from different countries just to take advantage of our trained medical providers. But our health care policies are very short-sighted and in need of repair. I see two major flaws with our current health care system.

One is that routine preventive health care is unaffordable for many families. For many the only type of health care that they can afford is a plan with a high deductible. This type of insurance is necessary for major injuries and life-threatening situations. But in the end it leads to a lack of preventive maintenance. With such high deductibles people are hesitant to go to a doctor for the routine care that might prevent major problems down the road. And, most high deductible plans provide no dental care at all.

This is like taking a car to a mechanic only when the engine seizes up or the transmission fails. What we should be doing is changing the oil and maintaining the air pressure in the tires. Under the current state of health care this is not possible for many. As a nation we are going to face much higher costs for medical and dental care as our population ages.

The second issue is the large number of people who do not have any insurance at all. If health insurance is anything like car insurance I am forced to pay not only for my own injuries but also for the injuries of all those who choose to go without insurance. The affordable care act, commonly known as Obamacare, made an attempt to rectify this issue. In my opinion Obamacare caused as many problems as it solved but in this one area it got it right.

Obamacare certainly isn’t perfect. And Republicans are now in the process of attempting to repeal it. I can understand their logic in doing so. However, I have not seen any type of plan they have proposed that addresses the issues of preventative care and the uninsured. Whether it is Obamacare, or some other plan, something needs to be done about the large number of American citizens who live off of the hard work of others. And the fact that preventative health care is not affordable.

America is a great country. We are a very resourceful people. Most of us work very hard to provide for ourselves and our families. We should be smart enough to know how to provide high quality, and affordable, health care to all of our citizens. It may cost us more in the present but it will pay big dividends down the road.

People Who Inspire: The “Unsinkable” Maggie Brown

Margaret Brown was more than just an American Socialite and Philanthropist; she was a woman with a big heart and a love for people. Maggie had a humble beginning which may have given her the concern for the less fortunate that made her famous. Born as Margaret Tobin on July 18, 1867 in Hannibal, Missouri, to Irish Catholic immigrant parents living in a two room house, she had three brothers, a sister and two half sisters. Her parents were both widowed very young.

When Margaret was eighteen she and her older brother Daniel moved to Leadville, Colorado, with her sister Mary Ann and her sister’s husband. In those days mining in Colorado offered many a chance at a good job in the industry or in businesses that served the miners and their families. Maggie lived with her brother in a small house and found work in a department store. Margaret eventually met and married J.J. Brown.

Maggie had a chance to marry rich men that made their fortune in mining and tried courting her. Instead, she married a self-educated entrepreneur. When asked about that she stated:

“I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown. I thought about how I wanted comfort for my father and how I had determined to stay single until a man presented himself who could give to the tired old man the things I longed for him. Jim was as poor as we were, and had no better chance in life. I struggled hard with myself in those days. I loved Jim, but he was poor. Finally, I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money had attracted me. So I married Jim Brown.”

The couple were married on September 1, 1886 in Leadville at the Annunciation Church. Over the next three years they had two children, Larry and Helen. In 1893 everything changed for the Brown Family. J.J. was responsible for the discovery of gold at the Little Jonny Silver Mine owned by Ibex Mining. Switching from silver to gold production made the company rich and turned around the ninety percent unemployment rate among miners in Leadville. Ibex gave him 12,500 shares of stock and a position on their Board of Directors.

Margaret donated her time and effort to working in a soup kitchen that served the needy families of Miners down on their luck. She was outspoken when it came to woman’s rights and very active in the Suffrage movement to gain women the right to vote. Maggie assisted in fundraising efforts for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (completed in 1911). She also worked with Judge Ben Lindsey to help destitute children and establish the United States’ first juvenile court, which formed the model for the modern U.S. juvenile courts system.

Margaret’s social views were not supported by her husband who had very sexist beliefs about the role of women in marriage and society. Sadly, these views were typical among most wealthy men and their socialite wives in those days. Although it never happened to her, women were regularly and legally whipped by their husbands for most any infraction. These might include serving dinner late, having a messy house or failing to properly supervise children. Maggie also managed to annoy J.J. and others by wearing oversized women’s hats to draw attention to herself and her causes.

In less than a year the Browns were wealthy and in 1894 they bought a Victorian Mansion in Denver. In 1897 they built a summer home near Bear Creek in Southwest Denver. Margaret helped establish the Denver Women’s Club with other wealthy wives. The club’s mission was to improve the lives of women through education and philanthropy. Maggie embraced her new role by getting involved with the arts and becoming fluent in French, German, Italian, and Russian.

Margaret Brown became a wealthy socialite, but she despised snobs. Maggie gave successful parties attended by many of Denver’s well known socialites. However, even after starting an association which celebrated French Culture (which was a favorite of wealthy women in those days), she was unable to gain entry into Denver’s most elite women’s group, Sacred 36. Members of that group attended exclusive parties and dinners hosted by Louise Sneed Hill. Brown called her “the snobbiest woman in Denver”.

Maggie’s early feminist views constantly annoyed her husband and some of the more influential members of Denver Society. In 1909 Margaret and J.J. signed a separation agreement. As religious Catholics they never divorced, but lived apart for the remainder of their lives. The two still communicated in a friendly way and cared for one another. Margaret received a cash settlement, maintained possession of their homes and received a $700 monthly allowance to continue her travels and social work.

Margaret Brown spent 1912 traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe. While in France she received a message from Denver saying that her eldest grandchild was seriously ill. She booked First Class passage on the RMS Titanic which was the very next passenger ship leaving for New York. Her daughter Helen was supposed to accompany her, but she decided to stay in Paris to continue her studies. Brown was transported to the Titanic aboard the tender SS Nomadic at Cherbourg, France, on the evening of April 10, 1912.

On April 15, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg at around 11:40 pm. Less than three hours later it slipped below the surface. During the rush to save as many as possible, Maggie helped other passengers get into their lifeboats, refusing to board her own. She was finally persuaded to leave the ship in Lifeboat No. 6. The brash Brown was later called “unsinkable” by a newspaper which reported on her stubborn refusal to leave the ship until she had helped as many as possible to board lifeboats, as well as her other actions to save lives and help survivors.

As the Titanic sank Maggie urged Quartermaster Robert Hichens to turn the half empty lifeboat around and look for survivors. Hichens was afraid the lifeboat would either be pulled down by suction from the Titanic or swamped by people trying to get into it, so he refused her request. Passengers from her life boat later told the press that Brown then threatened to throw the crewman overboard. After the Titanic Survivors were picked up by the RMS Carpathia, Brown organized a committee of First Class Passengers to help Second and Third Class Passengers. They provided essentials and even arranged for counseling.

Margaret Brown ran for a Senate seat from Colorado in 1914. She abruptly ended her campaign to return to France to work with the American Committee for Devastated France during World War I. Afterward, she used her new found fame as “The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown” to speak out for literacy among women and children, and better working conditions for Miners. Maggie also continued to push for women’s rights and raise money for worthy causes like the Red Cross.

During the 1920s Maggie fulfilled a lifelong ambition and became an actress. The desire the public had to meet her because of all the publicity she received brought people out in large numbers. Her fame as a Titanic survivor and her outspoken brashness made her an instant success in the world of theater. She outlived her husband, but on October 26, 1932, Margaret Brown died in her sleep at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City. An autopsy revealed that she died because of a brain tumor. She was buried with J.J. Brown in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, Long Island, New York.

Margaret Brown’s fame as a heroic Titanic survivor helped her promote historic preservation, and commemoration of the bravery and chivalry displayed by the men aboard the Titanic. During World War I she worked with the American Committee for Devastated France and helped wounded French and American soldiers. She was awarded the French L├ęgion d’Honneur for her actions, activism, and philanthropy.