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 a shortcut in 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, think, and solve problems for themselves, not to simply provide them the answers.

Even though helping through questions is obvious for parents, it isn’t as obvious when helping adults. The fact is that in many call centers, managers are far too quick to jump in and fix their employees’ problems for them. Rather than asking agents a series of questions designed to develop their thinking process and enable them to solve the problem themselves, many managers give employees the answers, or worse yet, do the work for them.

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. Therefore, we can easily understand why managers default to the easiest and fastest possible way of resolving problems. As well intentioned as this 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 the time it takes to discuss the problem and promote the employee’s thinking about solutions. Consequence: Knee jerk 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 call center, providing quick answers takes away the tension that unsolved problems create. Consequence: Short-term thinking sometimes creates long-term problems. Providing easy solutions to agents without expecting them to think for themselves creates dependency and undermines the employees’ motivation and ability to solve future problems on their own.
  • Fact: Many managers have been promoted from agent or supervisor positions where they excelled. Consequence: When managers enjoy the technical aspects of the work they supervise, they attend more to practical challenges and problem solving than they do to 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 agent’s unsolved problem, the manager is psychologically affirming his or her own knowledge and experience. Consequence: The manager is affirmed, but the agent gets the message that he or she wasn’t capable or knowledgeable enough to solve the problem. Managers can sometimes be motivated by the wrong things.
  • Fact: Managers generally have more experience and knowledge to draw from than their employees do. Consequence: If a team relies solely 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 call center 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 staff. Here are a few questioning strategies that will help:

  • Strategy #1: Ask questions that help employees see problems 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 through the layers, you can arrive at the problem’s root cause, which is what a good solution must address. Be clear that you are seeking to help the employee solve the problem, not grilling him or her or trying to affix blame. Let the agent know that you are 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? Who else has dealt with this before?” You may even ask, “What tools or technologies might offer a new approach that no one has tried?” These questions get the employee thinking about both resources and the process of approaching a problem.
  • Strategy #5: Use questions that inquire into the agent’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 demonstrates that you value their intelligence; it cultivates their independence and enhances their independent problem-solving capabilities. Doing this requires some investment in 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 end, tapping into the intelligence of everyone is simply common sense.

Doug Silsbee is a business consultant and coach in Asheville, NC. He leads workshops all over the world and coaches individuals on self-development and management in any professional venue. Doug’s book is “The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Helping People Grow.”

[From Connection Magazine October 2005]

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