The right questions can be better than good answers

Expert advice on teaching critical thinking skills to employees for organizations that are now relying on the talents of Millennials.
Coworkers engaged in critical thinking

You know the old proverb. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. I was reminded of this adage when I came across a recent Harvard Business Blog on "how to ask better questions."

The author of that insightful post, Judith Ross, notes that when people (especially subordinates) come to us with questions, the natural instinct is to provide an answer. However, providing the answer may not be the best response.

Although providing employees with answers to their problems often may be the most efficient way to get things done, the short-term gain is overshadowed by long-term costs. By taking the expedient route, you impede direct reports' development, cheat yourself of access to some potentially fresh and powerful ideas, and place an undue burden on your own shoulders. When faced with an employee's problem, you can respond in a much more value-adding way: by asking the right questions, help her find the best solution herself. We aren't talking about asking just any questions but, rather, employing questions that inspire people to think in new ways, expand their range of vision, and enable them to contribute more to the organization.

The distinction Ross draws is critical for the manager and the leader. On the one hand, you can be short-term task-focused, and in that case you provide an answer (or better yet, the answer). On the other hand, you can think long-term and focus on the health and self-sufficiency of your learning organization. That is, you can give the employee a fish or you can teach the employee to fish.

The expedient approach may get a problem off the desk more quickly - a seductive choice in a busy and resource-strapped environment - and it takes an investment of time and effort to teach fishing skills. However, the leader who consistently teaches discovers that over time fewer and fewer reports walk into the office with questions. They've learned to be self-sufficient, they've learned to solve problems, they've learned to think, and most critically, they have learned to learn. Instead of an organization with one person at the top who knows the answers, you have an organization where everybody either knows the answer or is empowered and equipped to find or develop that answer. This is especially important in organizations that rely on the talents of Millennials; this cohort is energetic and diligent, but is not by nature very good at critical thinking or problem-solving.

This results in a variety of benefits for the organization and its people. Here are a few things that occur to me off the top of my head:

  • More efficient use of manager's time and effort.
  • More efficient problem solving throughout the organization.
  • Stronger collaboration as team members grow more confident and capable.
  • Organization ceases to be the sum of its parts and becomes a full-fledged learning organism where the whole far exceeds the sum of the parts.
  • Fosters a greater distribution of authority and allows many important decisions to made closer to the locus of expertise.
  • Organization becomes a desired place to work, improving ability to attract and retain talent (and all the implications this has for staffing and turnover-related costs).
  • In larger organizations, a single group or department can become an incubator for talent development across the entire business.
  • Productive cultural change results as success breeds success (a new MIT study suggests that we learn from successes while we may not learn from failures at all).

Of course, all these points have clear and powerful implications for the organization's productivity and prospects in the marketplace.

I'll always remember a class I taught once, a number of years ago, at a small college in North Carolina. I was forcing my students to slog through a particularly frustrating problem, and every question they asked I answered with a question of my own. Finally, one of my brighter (and more vocal) charges snapped: "Will you just tell us the answer?!!"

No, I wouldn't, and if I had I'd have been doing them a disservice. She may, over time, have forgotten any answer I gave her, but I promise you, she'll never forget how to fish.

The same goes for your employees.