columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm a fairly new manager of a small team and recently received some feedback from an employee that I don't know what to do about. A previous employee had also given me the same feedback, so I'm starting to see a pattern.

When team members come to me with questions, I tend not to give the answer right away but ask them questions back to stimulate their thinking. Most often, they do know the answers but are just not making the connections or fully analyzing the situation. Sometimes they are quite far off, and we end up spending 15 to 30 minutes fleshing it out. I thought I was "coaching" and helping to improve their critical thinking skills, but they don't see it this way.

I have overheard grumblings about my "Socratic" method and would I just tell them the answer already so they can get back to their work! Our workloads are high and we are quite busy, so I can empathize there. They also find it stressful because they are having to think on their feet and remember facts and details. Plus, they are uncomfortable with my knowing what they don't know or being wrong in front of me. That was some feedback I received directly.

Another manager sometimes works directly with my team and they love her because she always tells them exactly what to do and they don't have to think about anything or make any judgment calls. They've definitely hinted at this in a not-so-subtle way -- OK, I get it.

I know exactly why I'm like this, and it's from university and years of grad school. This Socratic method was the norm with my professors and grad school supervisor. They were focused on training us on how to think. I guess I have carried this into the workplace. None of my team members have post-grad schooling, just bachelor's degrees.

I don't know what to do. The team really needs to improve their critical thinking skills and problem-solving ability. I don't feel I'm helping them by spoon-feeding everything, but I don't want them hating me either. Maybe I should have just become a professor!

Green responds:

What you don't want to do is act like a professor rather than a manager. That's not your job, it's not what people signed up for, and it's not the most effective way of managing people.

That doesn't mean that you shouldn't coach -- you absolutely should coach. But coaching people effectively means (a) adapting your approach to fit what works best for each individual person, and (b) recognizing that there's a time and a place for coaching, and that other times you just need to give someone the damn answer already.

So, questions back to you: Are you doing this reflexively whenever someone brings you a question? Or are you thoughtfully picking the times when you think it will help build their skills rather than doing it across the board? Also, are you truly building their skills when you do this -- is the result that they're learning something that they're carrying forward into their work in the future? Or is there a method of training them that might work better, even if only because it wouldn't come with the side of "agh, I just need a quick answer to this"?

Also, it's important for you to tell them what you're doing and why. If they need to improve their problem-solving skills, tell them that directly, and why, and explain what that would look like (so that they're on the same page as you about what that really means). Then explain that you're going to work with them to build those skills, and that may mean that sometimes when they bring you questions, you'll help them puzzle through it rather than giving them a quick answer -- not to be pedantic, but because that will make them better at their jobs in the long run. If you don't explain that, they're likely to just be annoyed and frustrated. (They may still be annoyed and frustrated, but at least they won't be creating their own story about why it's happening.)

Also: Try not to see this as being about their having no post-grad schooling while you do. That risks getting you into condescending territory really quickly, and it's more likely that it's really just about their wanting a quick answer and being frustrated that you've not giving them one.

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