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Develop Your Employees Through Questions, Not Answers
by Doug Silsbee

When a child asks you for help with homework, do you tell the child the answers and do the homework for the student? Of course not! Most adults know that to do so would be to shortcut the child's learning process. Instead, we help children study by asking them questions that guide them through the problem-solving process. The objective is to help them learn to think and solve problems for themselves, not to simply provide them the answers. After all, how could the child possibly do well on the test if a well-meaning adult gave the child the answers during study time?

If helping through questions is so obvious for the parenting example, why isn't it as obvious when we're helping fellow adults? The fact is that in many companies, managers are far too quick to jump in and fix their employees' problems for them. Rather than asking employees a series of questions designed to develop the employee's thinking process and enable the employee to solve the problem him or herself, many managers give employees the answers, or, worse yet, do the work for the employee.

Why do so many managers make the mistake of providing their employees with answers to all their questions? Part of the problem lies in the fact that most managers haven't been trained as coaches. They are simply doing the best they can at putting out the inevitable brush fires and keeping projects moving forward. Therefore, we can easily understand why managers default to the easiest and fastest possible way of resolving problems. As well intentioned as this "expert" model of management is, the long-term results of being "too helpful" are dire. Consider the following Facts and Consequences of this management style:

Fact: A manager can often provide a solution more quickly than it would take to discuss the problem and elicit the employee's thinking about solutions. Consequence: Knee jerk first responses to problems often aren't the best responses. As someone said, "There's nothing more dangerous than a good idea when it's the only one you have."

Fact: In the high-pressured environment of today's workplace, providing quick answers takes away the tension that unsolved problems create. Consequence: Short-term thinking sometimes creates longer-term problems. Providing easy solutions to employees without expecting them to think for themselves creates dependency and undermines the employee's motivation and ability to solve future problems on his or her own.

Fact: Many managers have been promoted from individual contributor positions where they once excelled. Consequence: When managers enjoy the technical aspects of the work they supervise, they easily prioritize their interest in problems and their solutions over developing employees. Solving problems is part of the manager's job; developing employees is harder to do, yet arguably more important for the long run.

Fact: Providing solutions makes the manager feel smart. When the manager suggests how to handle an employee's unsolved problem, the manager is psychologically affirming his or her own knowledge and experience. Consequence: The manager is affirmed, but the employee gets the message that he or she wasn't capable or knowledgeable enough to solve the problem. Managers sometimes are motivated by the wrong things.

Fact: Managers generally have more experience and knowledge to draw from than their employees. Consequence: If a work group solely relies on the manager's experience and knowledge, they will likely continue to do things the way the manager has done things in the past. This deprives the organization of the innovation and creativity that could emerge from a more thorough exploration of the problem and possible solutions.

Questioning Strategies for Effective Management: Fortunately, you don't need an advanced degree or intensive training in coaching methods to begin to change these dynamics. Nor do you need to forget everything you've already learned about managing people. A shift in emphasis, and a few simple tips for asking questions in everyday work situations, will go a long way toward changing the pattern of dependency and developing your employees. Here are a few questioning strategies that will help:

Strategy #1: Ask questions that help employees see the problem differently. You might ask, "What was different last week when this was working?" or "How might person X view this problem?" or "What would need to be different for this to not become a problem?" Such questions help expand the employee's view of the issue.

Strategy #2: Exercise the discipline to develop, along with your employee, at least two and preferably three alternative solutions. Put the first solution on the shelf. Then, challenge your employee by saying, "Okay, that's a great idea. Now, can you come up with another viable option? With two ideas, we'll have a real choice."

Strategy #3: Ask "Why?" five times in a row. This investigative approach helps move the conversation about a problem towards the discovery of the problem's root cause. Each time the employee answers a "why" question, the manager asks "why?" again, looking for the layers of causality. Eventually, by going deeper and deeper through the layers, you can arrive at the problem's root cause, which is what a good solution really addresses. Be clear that you are seeking to help the employee solve the problem, not grilling him or her or trying to affix blame. You're simply sharing an investigative technique.

Strategy #4: Consider how you have approached similar problems in the past. Use the problem as an opportunity to ask the employee questions that lead him or her through a problem-solving process you have previously used. You might ask the employee, "What information might help narrow the problem down?" or "Who else has dealt with this before?" or "What tools or technologies might offer a new approach that no one has tried?" These questions get the employee thinking both about resources and the process of approaching a problem.

Strategy #5: Use questions that inquire into the employee's contribution to the problem. Generally, if a person can think of the ways in which he or she is helping to create the problem in the first place, the employee is just one step away from identifying what he or she can do to solve it. Asking, "What did you do that you think might have made him mad?" can lead to: "I could be less critical of his efforts; he's new on the job." Likewise, asking, "What are you usually doing when the error rates go up?" might lead to: "I suppose the error rates are higher when I've not calibrated the machine for a while."

The bottom line is that engaging employees in solving their own problems values their intelligence, cultivates their independence, and enhances their independent problem-solving capabilities. Doing this requires some investment in precious time and a willingness to experiment with your approach as a manager. But the investment is certainly worth it. You can reduce dependency, boost morale, build more capable employees, and develop better solutions. In the long run, tapping into the intelligence of everyone is simply common sense.

Doug Silsbee is a leadership coach, author and master teacher in Asheville, NC. His most recent book is Presence-Based Coaching. More information on Doug's work is at Inquire at or 828-254-2021 for more information or a free consultation. Copyright © 2008, Doug Silsbee. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this piece in its entirety, provided that no changes are made, the intact resource box at the end is included, and a copy of the use is provided to the author. For permission for edits, excerpts, or other changes, contact Doug Silsbee at 828-254-2021 or Doug Silsbee may be contacted at


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