Generally speaking, people like being able to solve their own problems. When they come to you with unsolved problems, it is an opportunity to help them become better at solving their problems themselves.
Why We Do It
Team members will come to their supervisor for solutions for any number of reasons: lack of experience, an underdeveloped critical thinking framework, a sense that they don’t have the authority to make a decision on their own, etc. Developing more autonomy in someone by using questions to reflect the problem back to them helps improve their ability in all of these areas.
Building autonomous team members—people who can think and act on their own without constantly seeking approval from authority (whether real or perceived)—can be hugely valuable to your organization. It potentially makes your life easier as a leader as your team becomes better able to handle tactical decisions on their own, allowing you to focus your attention on more strategic problems. It’s also a critical first step toward building your next generation of leadership.
How We Do It
Sometimes it seems easiest just to tell a person the solution that may seem obvious to you. The trick with this technique is to stifle that impulse and instead prepare yourself to only ask questions of your team member. You’re teaching them to fish, so to speak, and it will take more time and effort than simply handing them a solution (or a fish). As they ask you for input, answers, risks, or ideas, turn it around on them by asking what they think instead.
Them: Hey, the flux capacitor is acting up again, and the product might not ship on time. What should I do?
You: What options do you see?
Them: Well, we could replace it with a new one. That bought us a couple months last time, but it doesn’t seem like a permanent fix. We could also upgrade it to the newer version, or we could redesign this part of the product to not even need it, honestly.
You: How would that affect the timeline?
Them: Well, if everything goes well with the upgraded one, we’d hit the timeline. A redesign would take us a lot longer.
Guiding the Conversation
While you are giving up a little control of the outcome of the situation (that’s how autonomy works!), you are certainly still able to lead your employee in a certain direction based on the questions you’re asking. They may be focusing on a solution without considering unintended consequences. You can bring their attention to that sort of thing without breaking the question-asking paradigm.
You: What if everything doesn’t go well?
Them: We haven’t used the upgraded module anywhere else yet, so we might have testing and integration delays.
You: What do you think our best choice would be?
Them: Thinking it through, we should probably just replace it again with the current version to get us through the deadline, then we could move to the upgraded version as time allows.
The trick is not just to ask some questions but to only ask questions. In general, ensure that they’ve determined what choices are available, and then make them weigh the pros and cons of those options while considering what unintended consequences might occur.
After several rounds of this, your employee may start to get the idea that they’re able to think through the issue, and they’re also empowered to make the decision (or at least the recommendation) on the solution on their own.
At some point, the other person is likely to recognize what you’re doing. That’s okay and even good: Eventually they will start anticipating the Socratic treatment, and they can imagine what sorts of questions you’d be asking them without even coming to see you. In time, they will have internalized an improved critical-thinking process and become more autonomous.
Another example to consider is a scenario where an employee is struggling to make progress on a customer support issue:
Them: Ugh, I can’t seem to figure out what’s causing this incorrect invoicing number on the Acme account. I’m totally stuck.
You: Have you been able to narrow it down at all?
Them: It seems like it’s getting goofed up somewhere between the account history and the billing modules, but I don’t know how to find out where.
You: Who would be a good resource to help?
Them: Well, I know Carla does a lot with billing, so maybe I need to ask her to help me trace it.
(later, after getting help from Carla)
Them: Okay, I think we found a bug with the billing software. It’s doubling the charge on the customer because work started just before midnight. We need to ask that software vendor for a bug fix. Our invoicing system is still trying to send out the wrong number, though.
You: What is under our control in the meantime?
Them: Hmm. I guess I could ask the Finance team to ignore this automatic invoice for this customer just this month and to cut a manual invoice with the correct number. Okay, that gives me a path forward, and I’ll get on the phone with Acme to let them know how we’re dealing with the issue.