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’.

Will Bob Be Ready When He Gets to You?

My daughter works for a university. This summer, she hired a student intern named Bo. Bo is a rising senior and graphic design major. He will be working twenty hours per week, creating video promotions and brochures for this year’s student events.

Erin is looking forward to seeing what he produces. But she’s concerned that he seems afraid to act without explicit instructions. Since she will be in and out of the office quite a bit this summer, she’s relying on him to take the topics and concepts they agree on and turn them into promotions that students will find engaging.

The day before Erin left for a few days of vacation last week, Bo was in her office five times in four hours. Each time, it was for a question he should really have been able to deal with himself. Finally, in a bit of exasperation, Erin told him to use his best judgment. “Okay,” he said, “If I need you, I’ll just text you while you’re traveling.”

Now Erin faces a dilemma. If she responds to his texts, will she be encouraging his behavior? If she does not, will Bo get the work done or wait until she responds to each question? What would you do? After all, Bo could be working for you when he graduates next year.

I sometimes face pushback from young people when I mention this kind of behavior. But Erin’s dilemma another real-life example of the challenge so many managers face. So, what’s a supervisor to do to manage this issue successfully? Here are the three strategies I recommend:

Employ the use of simulations during selection – Let’s face it, interviews do not reveal the decision skills of most applicants. You need to observe them in action. These exercises do not have to be elaborate, but should be based on typical situations made in your workplace daily.

Take a few minutes to jot down five or so of these decisions. Then create a simulation that compels applicants to demonstrate their skills and confidence at handling those dilemmas. You shouldn’t be looking for correct answers. You should be watching to see how they think through each challenge. (In my next post, I’ll provide five illustrations that I’ve seen work.)

Meet new employees where they are – In these times of tight labor supply, I have managers saying to me, “I’m hiring every warm body I can find.” I get that. You can still hire people lacking decision skills. But if you do, you need to be prepared to coach them on decision making from day one.

One manager I know has a simple strategy. When hiring someone who’s lacking in certain skills, he says, “I’d like to bring you on. But I do have some concerns about how well you think on your feet. So, I’m going to put you through some decision skills training first thing. If we can have that agreement, I’d like to have you as a part of our team.” In this way, he establishes a bit of buy-in before the person starts. If the person responds negatively to this condition, he doesn’t want that person on the team, no matter how tight the labor market.

Place parameters around your access – In today’s digital environment, there has emerged an expectation that everyone needs to be available at all times for all questions. This is simply not necessary, but you need to set and enforce practical parameters.

Early in my career, I worked for a director named Don. Don had a tremendous amount on his plate. When I waltzed into his office to ask a question I could have resolved myself, it did not go well. After a few weeks of this, Don said to me, “Why don’t you wait until you’ve got a few of these questions you really need my help on. Then we’ll spend a few minutes resolving them all at once. This compelled me to re-prioritize what I was doing, solve the problems I could, and be well organized when I did approach him.

Over time, we got so in synch that he would hold up his index finger and say “one” when he saw me in his doorway. After we had resolved the first issue, he would hold up two fingers and say, “two,” and so on. This approach doesn’t work for everyone, but you get the idea. What will work for you?

So, those are my three recommendations. What are yours? I’d love to know. Respond to this post or shoot me an email at

Well Intentioned But Tuned Out

I was sitting in a booth at a fast-food restaurant grabbing a bite to eat. The store manager was in the next booth with five of her employees, holding a staff meeting. She was going on and on though the topics she needed to cover. It appeared to be a list of about ten items – “This policy has been changed. We’re all supposed to say this to customers. We’ve got to clean the restrooms more often.” And so on. The employees were in such proximity that they knew they couldn’t check their smart-phone without getting caught. So what were they doing? They were making faces at each other, looking out the window, and everything else you might imagine. Hmmm.

Now, I’ve not been a fast-food manager, but my little voice was crying out to say, “Allow me to give you a few simple pointers on engaging those you supervise.” See if you agree.

Number one, look up from the list. She seemed so intent on getting through the items in the time she had apparently allotted for this task, that it would have been just as effective to give them copies of the items and tell them to read. If you’re not invested in true implementation, those around you won’t be either.

Number two, turn off your lecture voice. When supervising young people, it can very easy to slip into teacher mode, which generally comes across as condescending. They hear enough of that from parents, school faculty and others in authority. As much as some managers might resist this characterization, these young people are your peers in this environment. They are flipping the same burgers, dishing the same fries and dealing with same customers as you. If you demonstrate respect, they will demonstrate it in return.

Number three, challenge them to embrace what you’re saying. Hire one hundred fast-food employees and maybe one will end-up working in the industry for a long time. But you can still teach them principles they can take with them to future jobs and careers. Lots of employers are complaining about the lack of critical thinking skills among those in the emerging generation. But these individuals have to begin some place. Many are looking for a safe place to ask those initial questions about how work works. You can be the person who gets them off to a good start.

Number four, involve them in the reasoning behind your instructions. Learning reasoning rather than rules is a much more effective way to foster productive contributors in any environment. Any time you have the opportunity to explain the bigger picture to someone you supervise, take it. Not doing so reduces them to rule followers. Rule followers do exactly what they’ve been told, even if it doesn’t make sense in certain situations. Rule followers never do more than what they’re told. Rule followers ask the “dumb” questions you hate, because you’ve trained them not to vary from the rules.

What ideas would you add to this list? Send them to me a

Would You Want Austin on Your Team?

Austin is a shift manager at my local McDonalds. Over the past few months, I have watched with a bit of fascination as he deftly supervises a wide range of ages and personalities. Employees accept his instructions with good nature and will own up to a mistake when he calls them on it. It is very evident that he is in charge, yet fair and professional. He knows how to give both compliments and criticisms with positive effect.

But here’s the thing — Austin is 18! He’s a senior in high school! Last week, I pulled him aside for a few minutes and asked where he learned all this. “My parents, mostly,” he said. “And I’ve had some good coaching from the owners.” I asked him to explain further. “From my parents, I’ve gotten a good work ethic and set of values about contributing to the organization,” he said. “My manager has been good about giving me specific instructions on how to handle people . . what to do, what not to do and how to avoid being manipulated by those who are just clocking hours. It took some time, but I’ve gotten the hang of it.”

I asked him about dealing with people three times his age. “I make a point of getting to know them and showing I care,” he said. They’re just here to make some money and keep busy. There’s nobody on a power trip. I think they’re even a little fascinated that I’m so young. The people my age are more likely to challenge me, but we’re work it through and I stick to my expectations. I make mistakes, but I’m learning.”

How refreshing! As much as we lament the lazy distracted ways of some Millennials, Austin is a great example of how bright the future can be. Whether he chooses a career with McDonalds or someplace else, he’s going to be successful. Interestingly, he attributes his work ethic and values to parenting. We can certainly use more of that in today’s disparate society. After all, the members of every emerging generation learn from the environments in which they come of age.