The Most Expensive Kind of Question Ever Asked

If you have ever supervised people, you have been on the receiving end of these questions. If you have ever been supervised, you have asked these kinds of questions. If you’ve had to answer these questions, it’s cost you time and focus, sometimes for hours every week. If you’ve asked these questions, you knew you were doing it, but it was so much easier than thinking.

What kind of questions? Lazy ones. They come in many forms. Some start out with, “Can you help me?” or maybe “I don’t know what to do.” Perhaps they end with, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” or “I looked it up on the Internet and there wasn’t any information.”

These questions can become the bane of a supervisor’s existence. Just when you have regained your concentration on the project at hand, someone leans in your door and says, “Got a second?” When you figure out that the question being asked should have been handled by the asker, your impulse might be to yell, “THINK FOR YOURSELF!” But then you conclude that it’s just easier to answer the question than dealing with the blank stare that comes with your demand for independent thinking. But that’s where you’re wrong!

There are three consequences to answering lazy questions: 1) Enablement – It is human nature to learn by observation. If employees observe you answering all their lazy questions, they will conclude that it is okay to keep asking.

2) Cost – Time is money and lazy questions drain your time and attention like nothing else. Answering ten lazy questions a day can run into thousands of dollars per month.

3) Turnover – Asking lazy questions demonstrates the lack of investment the person has in their job. If they don’t care enough to think, why would they care enough do good work or even stick around?

Now, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. The issue is what to do about it. In my experience, it comes down to the word “compel.” Compel is defined as having a powerful or irresistible effect. In other words, the person feels like they have no choice except to comply. Notice I used the word “feel.” There is an emotional element to this. You’re not forcing them to do anything. You are convincing them that it is in their best interest to think rather than take the easy way out.

A number of years ago, I was introduced to an educational technique called a “think-aloud.” Imagine a student approaching a teacher to ask for help on something he’s already been shown before. Rather than showing him a second or even third time, the teacher says, “Let’s think this through together. How should we begin?” Then the teacher waits for a response.

The student may be hesitant or even say, “I don’t know how to begin.” In response, the teacher says, “Suppose I was not here and you had to solve this yourself. What’s the first step?” Then he or she remains quiet again.

After a few seconds, the student will suggest a first step and the teacher encourages him by saying, “That’s great. Now, where do we go from here?” This process continues until the student catches on. All the while, the teacher provides a mix of encouragement and guidance, but not answers.  At the end of this exchange, three positive things have happened.

First, the student has developed an understanding of how to solve the problem. Second, the teacher has observed how the student thinks. This informs how he or she should teach and coach the student in the future. Third, in learning this new skill or technique, the student develops additional confidence in his ability to think critically and independently.

The cool thing is that you can take this technique and transfer it directly into the workplace and use it to compel employees to think creatively and independently. Does it take some time and energy to employ this approach? Yes. Will it work every time? Not at first. But after a while employees will begin to understand that you will take them through this process whenever they ask questions they should be able to resolve themselves. This will compel them to think for themselves rather endure this kind of conversation each time. Once you have this practice in place, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the number of lazy questions diminishes and everyone’s productivity rises. I know, I’ve tried it with the people who have worked for me.

So, here’s the bottom line. Unless you try this technique, you are not allowed to complain any more about people who ask lazy questions. I’m just sayin’.

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