Monday, February 8, 2021

Answering Complex Questions - Part 1

Actions to take: When your employees ask relatively complex questions, do not answer with the first thing that comes to mind. Probe for more details. Delay making an immediate decision. Where appropriate, push that "thinking work" back onto them. 

Your employee just came to you with a new idea. She has a new approach for the back workroom inventory system that she says will make things simpler for everyone. After a few minutes' explanation of her idea, you are not at all convinced that it will be simpler. It seems to cater very well to her work and work like hers, but it is evident that she hasn't thought through the impacts it would have on coworkers who use the inventory differently from how she does. Further, this would be a complicated change. Even if it improved everyone's work as she describes, it is probably not worth the cost of the time spent transitioning to her new system. You thank her for her ideas and explain that it cannot be done at this time. You have just made a managerial error.

When staff come to us with questions or ideas, our impulse is to immediately answer with our thoughts. It is human nature and what we expect out of casual conversation--you ask a question, I try to answer. It is also what we presume a manager should be doing. People think the manager is the problem solver. We’ve been trained to believe that you go to a manager to get answers. They make the decisions and have the knowledge. Once you turn a critical eye on that presumption, you will see its flaws. 

There are three critical reasons why you should not jump in with your thoughts as soon as it is your turn to speak to an employee about their idea or question.

  1. The solution is the last step, not the first: Our brains constantly put the cart before the horse when trying to solve problems. We immediately consolidate the tiny amount of information we’ve been given into an answer. Stop yourself! If you do this, you won’t consider relevant (but unknown) information, and you will make bad choices based on limited knowledge. In any troubleshooting guide, the first step is always to identify elements of the problem. Forget about the solution at first and just gather information.
  2. You will fail to develop your staff: As a manager, a core part of your job is developing your people. That includes pushing them to solve problems on their own, develop critical thinking skills, and understand that complex problems sometimes require in-depth problem-solving strategies. By answering the question yourself every time, you rob them of any opportunity to find answers on their own.
  3. You become a firefighter: If you “take care” of every problem, you are teaching staff that they should come to you with all their problems. You are giving them the gift of dealing with it, so of course they’ll bring the next problem to you. Your job starts to be all about dealing with issues, metaphorically known as putting out fires. Those issues will become more and more mundane over time, since the answer to every problem is "see what the boss thinks." Some managers take a certain grim satisfaction in this (“This place would collapse without me! They’re so lucky I’m here!”), but it is not an effective way to manage.

You must actively stop yourself from jumping in with answers. When someone comes to you with a complex question, shift into mental overdrive. Listen to what they are saying and be thinking strategically about how you should respond. Probe for more details, don't make any immediate decisions, and look for ways to encourage them to analyze their own question. In Part 2, we walk through a specific process you can employ to do this effectively.

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