I was teaching a full-day workshop one time for a local municipality. Throughout the day, the Fire Chief attending kept leaving the room to take calls. When we came back from one of our breaks, he apologized for the interruptions, saying, “I don’t understand why they keep calling,” to which I replied, “Because you keep answering.”
As leaders, we sometimes think we need to be the ones with all the answers. We feel it’s our job to help our employees come up with the best solutions. However, when we take this “helpfulness” too far and employees become so reliant on us for answers they can’t get along without us for a day, we’re no longer helping them, we’re crippling them.
One of the best ways to empower your employees is to stop being the person with all the answers and start being the person with the questions. Ask vs. Tell whenever possible.
When an employee asks, “How should I handle this?” Instead of giving your advice, ask, “What do you think would be the best approach?”
When an employees says, “What should I do to resolve this problem?” Instead of offering a suggestion, ask, “What do you think would be a good solution?”
Even though you might have an answer, a suggestion, or some advice, unless it’s an emergency situation, don’t offer it up right away. Your goal in reversing the question back onto the employee is to get him or her to think, problem-solve, and be proactive. You’ll also discover a lot about your employees – how they think, how they reason, and how much experience or creativity they have. You’ll also find over time your employees will come to you with solutions ready to present, instead of problems to dump in your lap.
The beautiful thing about taking an Ask vs. Tell approach is if you ask and you don’t get an answer, or you don’t get a good answer, you can always switch gears and “tell” by offering a suggestion – but posed as a question. “Well, what do you think if we offer her a refund. Do you think that will solve the situation?”
When you do, one of two things will happen:
One- the employee will say, “Yes, I think giving her a refund would make her happy.” Then you can respond and say, “Great idea. I think giving her a refund will solve the problem quickly and keep her coming back.” By responding this way, you’ve created an opportunity to praise the employee and are taking steps toward building his or her confidence.
Two- the employee will say, “I don’t know if a refund will work. What about offering to order her a duplicate item. I can get it rush shipped so she’ll have it by Thursday.” To which you can respond, “Great idea. I think a replacement product is just the right solution.” Once again, you’ve created an opportunity to praise the employee and are taking steps to build confidence.
It’s not to say you’re never going to just straight out tell employees what they should do, but by opting to ask their thoughts first, you’re taking a big step toward empowering employees to handle situations on their own and grow their communication and problem-solving skills.