The Value of Teaching vs. Telling

The value of teaching rather than telling is very important. When someone brings a problem to a plant manager, floor or cell leader or supervisor, it is typical for that leader to begin a process of figuring out how to resolve the situation. That typically comes in two forms:

  • If they are not familiar with the problem, they will ask questions to scope out the problem, eliminate potential causes and identify a solution
  • If they are familiar with the problem, they will task the employee with actions to take to fix it

However, that may not be the best way to help develop a culture of learning and talent development throughout the organization.

The intent should be to help teach employees, who usually know more about the reality on the ground and operational problems, to be empowered to not only diagnose the issues themselves, but also take action to resolve them before they grow or need to be consulted on with their managers or supervisors.

As mentioned above, the questions from leaders are normally diagnostic in nature. The leader’s intent is to get more information so that he can then propose or direct a solution. Due to time constraints, work stress and production targets, it is easy to default into this mode. An employee is asking for advice or help, and the natural reflex is to give it. It is normal to feel like the expert and fulfill that role.

But, if the intent is to develop the expertise in people, then the questions must be different. The focus should shift from finding the answers to teaching the questions. Coach rather than direct. Ask rather than tell. Help the employee discover what they already know or, if they need to learn more, guide them on the necessary steps to do that effectively. To use an old saying, teach them how to fish instead of continuing to fish for them.

One way to understand the shift from expert to teacher is to think of a situation from your own work experience. As an example, imagine a group of operators had an idea for an improvement. They brought their idea to the plant manager, carefully explained it, and waited for the response.

Instead of dismissing it or starting to ask leading “What about…?” questions, the manager asked a teaching question:

“What things do you think might concern me about this?”

The operators did not have an answer since they had never thought about the issue from that perspective. The plant manager waited and then told them, “Consider it and let me know tomorrow what you think?”

On the following day, the operators presented the manager with a revised plan that addressed the potential issues the manager was concerned about, but also problems the plant manager had not considered due to their knowledge of production the manager did not have himself.

Asking the teaching question pushed the operators to factor in a wider range of implications, to view the issue like the plant manager who has goals to accomplish and stakeholders he has to satisfy beyond the scope of the production floor itself.

Human beings are wired to pursue affirmation of our own value and competence in our work. It is very easy to play the expert role and provide all the answers (or pretend we can) than do the extra work to coach others and build expertise & confidence in them. Workplaces can have a competitive culture that punishes the sharing of valuable information or where personnel are more interested in getting promoted than fixing issues and helping the business grow. To step outside our own and, in some cases, the company’s comfort zone is risky, but it does help both the leaders and employees equally.

Being told what to do all the time can be frustrating for employees. If you hear them say, “Just tell me what to do”, that is a strong signal of their frustration and lack of investment in growing and helping the company succeed. If the intent is to develop the organization, you must work harder to earn their trust, develop their expertise and confidence, and give them opportunities to take the lead. This will help them build that investment in the company since they see themselves as valued members of the organization.

Feeling like everything is on your shoulders is stressful and difficult to overcome for managers and leaders. Being able to rely on a capable workforce that can not only discover issues but fix them effectively is critically important. Coaching employees to manage their cell or production line independently can free up time for you to focus on the many other tasks that need to be done and allow for the brain space to prepare well for what is coming next.

Think how you respond now when someone presents an idea? Do you dismiss it? Do you look for ways to invalidate it? Or do you challenge people to go back and think a little more deeply about the implications?

One is fishing for others. The second is teaching those others to fish.

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