Improve Your Delegation By Not Answering Questions

Some management pitfalls reflect a lack of skill, but this one ironically occurs more frequently the more experienced and skilled the manager is.  The problem?  Answering employee questions.  But wait, isn't that the job of a manager - to help employees carry out their work and give them the information they need to be successful?  Well, yes....and the way in which you do it matters a lot.  

Let's say your employee is working on a project, one that you used to handle before you were promoted to manager.  The employee comes to you and says, "The client doesn't like the standard features and wants to customize it.  What should I do?"  You're busy, the employee's busy, and your first instinct will be to do the fastest thing, which is to come up with an answer.   That way, both you and the employee can move on.  

However, you have just set the employee back in two ways: 1, you have affirmed that she is not capable of figuring it out for herself, and 2, she doesn't know why you gave the answer you did, so she will have to come to you again for similar situations.  You may have saved time in the moment, but you've set yourself up for future interruptions, and you missed an opportunity to help the employee to become more independent and more efficient.  

People often focus on big projects or areas of responsibility when thinking about delegation, but these small moments where an employee is stuck are opportunities to delegate, too.  And just like with delegating big things, micro-delegation requires you to let go of the idea that employees being dependent on you is a good thing.  

This action item is simple but not necessarily easy.  It will require a shift in behavior for both you and your employee, and it might feel a little awkward for both of you at first.  

The next time an employee comes to you with a question regarding their work that you are able to answer without further research or approval, don't give the answer.  Instead, use a question to help the employee think it through:

What do you see as the options?

What have you tried already?

What have you considered so far?

What information do you need to be able to move forward?

What are the potential ramifications you see?

How do you see this being similar or different to [previous situation]?

Who else might have perspective on this?

What do you think will work best?

If the employee is still unable to get to the answer, share your perspective as a perspective, rather than an answer, and get them to evaluate that response.  "My inclination would be go with [option].  How do you think that would play out?"

The idea is to get the employee to think through the situation critically, not to ask leading questions to get them to the answer as quickly as possible.  You want to convey confidence in their ability to handle it, while still providing the necessary support and information they might need.  

You'll know you're doing a good job of this when employees start bringing truly complex, hard-to-solve questions to you and start out the conversation with the options they see, the possibilities they've already ruled out, resources they've consulted, and other things that show that they've truly thought it through rather than just popping in your doorway as soon as they hit an obstacle.  

The more you can answer questions with questions, the more you will train the employee to run through those questions before even coming to you.  

Related Resources

Pygmalion in Management

This is an old but classic HBR article about how your beliefs about your employees can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Multipliers: how the best leaders make everyone great, by Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown.  This book gets a little repetitive at times, so you might better off with the summary article from HBR, but it does a terrific job of outlining ways in which really great, well-intentioned managers might be holding their teams back.  I frequently recommend it because it gets way beyond the basics and into the subtleties of creating a great environment of growth for your employees.

Related Posts

General guidelines on how to empower your staff while retaining your authority as the manager:

Delegation tips that apply both to project-level delegation as well as "micro-delegation" like the action item:

Having an open door is not necessarily a great thing for you or for your employees - this post might help you think through what make the most sense for your particular team: