Man with hand in air

Don't have all the answers

It keeps the queue at your door short

Written by Dr. Shaun Ridley FAIM
3 minute read
Man with hand in air

Unless you are sitting around with your staff doing the crossword from the morning paper, it’s best that you don’t have all the answers.

It is not uncommon, particularly for recently appointed leaders to feel they should know all the answers and then share those answers with their team. This reflects the insecurity of the leader who feels some pressure to be on top of every issue and to be the best at every task.

Some of this pressure comes from the traditional process of promoting the person with the best technical skills to the role of supervisor. The best tradesperson becomes Leading Hand, the best teacher becomes Senior Master, the best sales person becomes Sales Manager and so on.

Despite how common this approach is, we all know the skills and knowledge required to be a supervisor are very different from those required to be a technical expert. We have also seen this approach fail when the highly regarded technician fails to deliver as a supervisor and the team loses their best operator.

The first thing the leader needs to do is realise that it is highly unlikely that they have all the answers. The more removed they are from the actual job, the more distant they are from the subtleties and intricacies of the role.

Secondly, it is also highly unlikely that there is only one right answer. Most tasks can be performed and most problems can be solved in a variety of different ways.

In most cases it doesn’t matter which approach is used as long as a satisfactory outcome is achieved. Being pedantic by insisting a particular method is used in preference to another equally effective method just sets you up to be seen as petty.

The boss who constantly has the answers usually has a long queue of people waiting to see them.

If you always know the answer, staff won’t bother thinking for themselves or finding another solution. They will simply take the easy path and ask the boss, giving them no responsibility or accountability for the decision or the outcome.

There is one time when it is appropriate to have the answer. That is when there genuinely is just one, single correct answer. If you are the only source of this answer then give it out and don’t play games by trying to get your staff to guess the answer.

And one final thing, if you are sitting around doing the crossword together, maybe hold off on shouting out the answers before everyone else – nobody likes a show-off.

One small step in the next 24 hours

Consider a question from a staff member as a development opportunity. What response could you give to ensure the next time this question arises, the staff member is capable of answering it themselves or finding the answer somewhere else?

For example, if the staff member says, “We haven’t been paid by XYZ Company for our last invoice so they are overdue, do you want me to call in the debt collectors even though they are a big customer?”, a simple first response from you could be, “What do you think our response should be?”.

This immediately encourages the employee to think about the issue and provides a chance for them to express their view.

Regardless of their answer, a coaching opportunity opens as you both explore the range of factors that should be taken into consideration prior to making the decision.

Perhaps you could discuss whether or not the company has been contacted about the debt, how overdue the payment is and the company’s past history of payment.

In doing so, you boost the staff member’s confidence, demonstrate your trust in their decision making and get an opportunity to share your thinking process on issues of this kind.