Managers: Don’t Answer That Question! – part two

In the previous posting, I wrote about how managers are chronically undermining whatever formal delegation systems are in place and enabling dependency all around them.

One of the reasons managers answer so many questions from their staff and others in the company is that they fear that if they don’t, then really important issues and opportunities may be addressed incorrectly or sub optimally.

A key to getting out of the round of endless questions while still being involved in important ones, is to set some boundaries, some limits.

This might sound like this: “I want you to develop three solutions before you come to ask me a question. Ask your colleagues for help if you get stuck. But, in the case of the following critical customer, Immense Big Machines, Inc., I want to be informed of any issues involving delay or cost overruns in Project XZY.”

With the right boundaries set around your new rule, you can still be assured of being involved where you need to be.

Finally, to make your staff and others in the company comfortable about taking responsibility for solving problems and answering their own questions, you need to have environment in which mistakes are expected and dealt with positively. Remember, if you are not making mistakes, you are doubtless doing very little and learning not at all. Mistakes need to be analyzed and the lessons learned. Perhaps the only rule about mistakes is that they should not be repeated.

Note that this skill, “Don’t Answer That Question!” is a great precursor to grasping the opportunities for controlling your time. More discussion about this in my entry: Seizing Your Time – the first step in time management.

Managers: Don’t Answer That Question! – part one

If most managers could listen to themselves for just a few hours, they would discover that they are chronically undermining whatever formal delegation systems are in place and enabling dependency all around them.

How is this happening?

Just listen and you will hear a stream of questions coming at them followed by answers in response.

Most managers get to be managers because they have some field in which they are very strong performers. They are the organization’s experts. So, it is so natural for them, and everyone around them, to follow the reflexive pattern: ask the expert and be rewarded with answers.

However, if you want to get people to take responsibility and be involved in the business, you can’t go on answering all these questions. They will just go on asking whether they need to or not.

What should a manager do to break this pattern?

Simply announce to the troops, “If you want to ask me a question, you have to have at least three possible answers thought through before I will consider your question. If you are having trouble coming up with answers, ask others to help you. Group thinking is always the best thinking.”

In my next posting on this topic I will go into a few further refinements to make this a really effective policy. For the moment, the really tough step is entirely in the mind and habits of you the manager. You have to get up every morning and look yourself in the mirror and say, “My job as manager is to create an environment in which everyone will take responsibility and participate fully. To help this along, I will help people by not answering their questions.”