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. In some cases, push that "thinking work" back onto them. To make this easy, follow the specific five step process described below.
In Part 1, we introduced the idea that managers should not always supply answers when their staff bring complex questions or ideas to them. Don't dive in with your opinion right away. Instead, engage in a process that 1) gathers data before coming to a conclusion, 2) encourages staff development, 3) discourages staff from expecting you to solve every problem for them. Here is a five-step schema for doing just that:
1) Ask the staff member for more details: Take a moment to think about how you personally operate at work. When you bring issues or ideas to your boss, have you usually thought about them quite a lot first? Think about the last time you brought something of substance to your boss's attention. How long had you been thinking about it before broaching the topic? I'll wager it was at least an hour on-and-off throughout the week leading up.
The employee who brings you a big question or big idea knows more about it than you do. They’ve been thinking about it and dealing with it. Don’t jump in with an answer when you’ve only had a few moments to process the problem. Instead, ask the staff member what they would do, why they would do it, what their reasoning is, etc. Whatever your initial reaction, spend at least 5 minutes keeping an open mind and considering alternative thinking.
2) Look for gaps in their logic: After you have heard enough to understand the problem (and proposed solution, if there is one), don’t stop there. Look for gaps in their reasoning, information that is still missing, perspectives that haven’t been considered yet. The staff member’s idea probably solves the problem for them, but does it solve the problem for their neighbor, or for you, or for your boss?
Here is one way to test whether or not you have discovered gaps in their thinking on the matter: ask yourself, "Could I fully and completely explain this idea to my boss, addressing all of the potential concerns they could see with it?" If the answer is maybe or no, then there are gaps in the information you have.
3) Direct the staff member to fill in gaps: This step in the process is vital for developing your staff. It is natural to do the follow-up investigation yourself. Their new idea may solve problems for them, but you can see other problems it might create for various coworkers. You know this, so it is easy for you to discuss the idea with those coworkers directly. Stop yourself.
You are a manager, and you are never going to have just one problem. If you take on the leg-work of every question or idea that comes up, you’ll quickly overwhelm yourself. While it would be more efficient for you to do this work yourself, you simply don’t have the time. Learning to work through others is perhaps the hallmark of becoming a manager.
This is where staff development happens. Logically, “it will be faster and easier if I just do it myself” could only be true if you think you are more skilled than the employee below you. That thought should be a signal to you, a red flag saying, “Here’s a chance for staff development.” Also logically, you shouldn’t expect it to go as well as if you had done it yourself. So don’t get frustrated when they don’t do exactly what you want.
4) Repeat steps 2 & 3 as necessary: If you yourself went to collect information, we wouldn’t need this step. You would get everything you need to get on the first pass because you know exactly what you want. Your staff member probably will not. Communication isn’t perfect, no matter how hard we try. Even when both parties are putting in full effort, it is impossible to get an exact understanding from one mind to another. Accept that, and build enough time into your decision-making process to allow for iteration.
5) Make the decision: If you have done the prior steps fully, you should have all the information you need to make a confident, certain decision. One way to tell if you are doing these steps correctly is by reflecting on staff reactions. When you make decisions contrary to what they were hoping, how do they react? Do they generally understand why that alternative was chosen? When you have enough information to make a confident decision that takes many perspectives into account, most staff members will be satisfied most of the time.
Try this process out next time one of your employees presents an idea or question of substance. I bet you will find yourself with employees who are more engaged in the "thinking work" of their jobs and who understand and appreciate your decision-making logic. You'll also free up time of your own for other work. If you do give it a shot, I'd love to hear how it goes. Comment here or use the contact form to say hello.