my employees don’t like the way I coach them

A reader writes:

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 15-30 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 me 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 judgement calls. They’ve definitely hinted at this in a not-so-subtle way — okay, 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 bachelors 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!

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 520 comments… read them below }

  1. Jan was not robbed*

    I’m sure he (I’m guessing it’s a he) means well, but I would 100% quit a job with a manager like this. If I’m in a hurry, I just want an answer. I promise the employees are using their brains every day, all the time.

    1. Al*

      I guess you’d quit if I were your manager, then! I’ll answer the question sometimes, but the point is for me to teach you to fish, not fish for you every single time.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        It sort of depends on the questions, yes? If the same people are coming with the same questions, that’s an issue. If multiple people are coming with the same patterns of questions, then it’s a training issue.

        If multiple people are having the same opinion of this guy’s approach, it might be a ‘this guy’ issue. Maybe he needs to recalibrate his notions of how often to engage in this, and how often to just answer. Maybe he needs to organize a training. Maybe he needs to start with something like, “Let’s step back for the bigger picture–when you had this trouble on X problem, what did you do?” which at least gives them context for why he’s doing it. But he just sounds exhausting.

        1. Sparrow*

          Totally agree – I personally think there can be a lot of value in this kind of dialogue, but doing it every. time. is just exhausting, and also not a good use of time. There are times where you *can* puzzle through something without asking anyone but it’d be infinitely faster to ask a person who knows the answer off the top of their head, and being forced to go through that process anyway when you were just trying to get a low-priority thing off your desk quickly is frustrating.

          I think looking for patterns is the important thing – if someone is repeatedly asking the same types of questions, then yes, absolutely help them with additional training, practicing problem solving around that kind of issue, or whatever would be useful *while explaining* why you’re doing it. Instead of this being a default response, use it as a tool that you use strategically when it will be most valuable.

          1. Mama Bear*

            It starts to feel either passive aggressive or demeaning after a while. I agree that there are times to dissect a topic and times to say “here’s the link to that report” even if you sent the link prior. I like your thought to look for patterns, too. Maybe they are asking because they need more training in that task, there’s no SOP, there’s a bottleneck somewhere, or the information isn’t available where and how it should be.

            1. MusicWithRocksIn*

              Up to 30 minutes of this is ridiculous. It would feel super demeaning, and condescending and so uncomfortable. If after ten minutes you can’t get them there then cut them loose with the answer or retrain them on that issue fully, making them flail around for a full half hour is just mean.

              1. Alice's Rabbit*

                30 minutes? No. If after 1 minute they aren’t getting there, you’re just wasting everyone’s time and the company’s money. If I had a manager who carried on like that for even 5 minutes on more thanoneoccasion, I would be looking for the first job I could find to get me out of there, ASAP!

            2. Observer*

              It does start to feel that way. And it seems pretty clear that the OP’s employees are feeling that way as well – they are worried about them ” knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of ” of them.

              Why are they so worried?

              OO, your intentions don’t matter – If your staff needs to worry about letting you know what they don’t know or being wrong in front of you YOU NEED TO CHANGE. Because you can say anything. But people are still not going to bring you the information they need and you will never be able to “improve” their skills and performance.

          2. Burned Out Supervisor*

            Yes, I find a lot of questions can be answered by using the reference materials created. My first response is always, where have you looked, who have you called?

            1. Kay*

              But also, sometimes I know that the person sitting near me has been in the team for years and it will take her 20 seconds to answer my question rather me inefficiently spending 30 minutes searching through reference documents.

              1. Alice's Rabbit*

                Same. Answer the freaking question! It’s like those people who insist on responding “advice. So frustrating, and not at all helpful. Do they honestly think I haven’t tried that? I’m asking YOU for a reason googling it” or “Look on pinterest” when you ask for advice

                1. Alice's Rabbit*

                  Well that got garbled by the internet!
                  I said:
                  It’s like the people who tell you “Try googling it” or “Look on pinterest” when you’re asking for advice.
                  Sorry, that’s a big pet peeve of mine. Answer the darn question, or direct me to somewhere specific (like chapter 4 of the manual) or pass me to someone willing to help. But I am not here to waste my time while you put on academic aires.

          3. yala*

            My boss does this a lot. Only half the time, the only question I get has “Have you checked [resource]?” Which…usually, yes, yes I have, and I wasn’t quite sure if it answered my question, since there’s a lot of leeway, and so what I want to know is what does my boss personally want us to do.

            The worst for me is still a toss-up between the time I got sent a 50-page manual (that didn’t actually address my question), or the time I asked my boss if she wanted me to CC her in an email to a different department, and instead of just saying “Yes,” was told “I think I sent you an email answering that.” She hadn’t.

            1. yala*

              Meant to add:

              The end result of this kind of behavior is that I DREAD having to ask my boss questions, because I never know if I’ll get a straight answer, an unclear answer (that still means “I have answered your question, so you don’t need to ask for further information”) or the non-answer. Both of the latter two stress me out and make me worry my manager sees me as incompetent for even having to ask the question.

              End result? I panic, I spend WAY more time trying to find the answer than I probably should, because I have to be absolutely CERTAIN that it’s even an ok question to ask, and I fall behind.

              I hate this style.

              1. willow for now*

                Yeah – where every question becomes a PhD-level research project before you can even ask the question. My ex was like this.

          4. Sacred Ground*

            Yeah, if this were happening most, and not some, of the time when I ask a specific question, I’ll stop asking questions. And if it takes me an hour to find the answer on my own, I figure that’s how they want me spending my work time. That’s assuming I know where to find the answer AND assumes I’ll find the RIGHT answer.

            If the manager then questions why it takes so long to get something done, or why I proceeded with wrong information, I’ll tell them exactly why. Because I’m effectively trying to train myself just as they clearly are expecting me to. If you WANT me to figure out these answers on my own, I’m likely to get it wrong sometimes and take a lot longer every time. But if I come to you for an answer I’m condescended to like a child and waste a half hour every single time for even a minor question, that’s not working.

            There a right time and place for that sort of “Socratic” instruction. In a lecture where everyone in the room is there at that agreed time for that express purpose. “Should I take this to Accounting or Legal” or “Where can I find the specs for the Dawson account” or “What file type do we save these as”, when other work is on hold for up to 30 minutes until I get an answer? Yeah, that is ineffective and condescending and a waste of time. If I’m evaluated at all on how long things take to do, then I’m likely going to have to document every minute of your lecturing to show its you wasting my time and not me.

            I would as likely move on to another job with actual training rather than be regularly condescended to and my work process interrupted like that.

        2. Anax*

          Yep. And we also don’t know whether these really are “puzzle it through” questions.

          Other possibilities:
          – Cover-your-butt questions: “Hey, how do you want me to handle this request by Client X?” (Because I think it’s a potentially awful idea, so I want confirmation from you, my boss, that this is what you want me to do.)
          – Weird situations: “Hey, this purchase order is $5,000,000 (when most are < $500), how do you want me to handle that?" (Because I know the usual procedure, but this seems very outside the norm, so I want to check in. Did someone miss a decimal point?)
          – Situations which aren't actually the same: "Hey, I groom llamas a lot, but this is the first time I've been asked to groom a turtle, how do you want me to proceed?"
          – Situations where the manager thought someone was trained, but they weren't.
          – Etc.

          There are a lot of cases where I could make a reasonable guess about what to do, but an incorrect guess might cost the company a lot of money or legal liability, so… I'm not just going to go around guessing.

          1. yala*

            Yes! Exactly this! So many situations where I could make a reasonable guess…but every incorrect guess is a bad mark against me, so… I’d really rather just know precisely how to handle certain issues, especially if something seems wonky.

          2. Emily*

            There’s also the fun variant where it could easily be a puzzle it out sort of question if it wasn’t for the fact that the manager involved will consider any answer that doesn’t match what they would have done exactly as objectively wrong. So instead of trying to problem solve you’re actually trying to mindread.

            1. Kimberly*

              I think this really depends on the situation. When I was new to the pharmaceutical industry working as a process engineer my manager and I had a lot of discussions like this. It was necessary for me to learn the job. However, this may or may not be the case with the positions you’re dealing with. Situational awareness is one of the most important requirements as a manager. Consider laying out some guidelines (sort of a short (short is very importany) checklist). Also, if someone has been there a long time and is asking you a lot of questions it may be due to different expectations from previous management. Make sure that your expectations on when to be consulted are clear.

        3. Quill*

          The exhausting thing is that often work questions don’t have an objective solution, they require an authority-based judgement call or a traditional procedure, which LW’s reports are unlikely to come to on their own.

          1. Alice's Rabbit*

            Exactly. They are asking OP for a reason. If it were something simple, they could easily just ask another coworker. Clearly, there’s a reason they’re coming to management, despite unanimously hating OP’s style of answering.
            This isn’t a classroom, where we spend 2 months pouring over a single book discussing the implications of the main character’s blue curtains. This is an office, where time is money and wrong decisions can cost people their jobs. So OP needs to stop wasting company resources and get back to work quickly.

          2. Cassie*

            It’s not clear if the questions being asked are authority-based judgement call questions or procedural questions. I’ve seen situations where staff are asking for guidance for the most simplest procedural questions. E.g., the policy clearly states wet signature is required, and the employees will still ask if another method is acceptable. How many times does the supervisor need to say “a wet signature is required”? Or have to answer every variant of “what if it’s a scanned signature? a digital signature? an email approval? a signature stamp?”.

            That, obviously, is very different from “we’re in the middle of coronavirus and everyone’s working from home. How are we supposed to collect wet signatures?”

        4. Ellex42*

          “maybe he needs to organize a training”

          Or write some instructions. A frequent and recurring complaint of mine throughout my life – not just at work, but before that in school – is a lack of instructions, or a lack of updated and comprehensive instructions. Sometimes I need to work out a problem, and sometimes I just need a quick refresher on how to do something I haven’t had to do recently, or a walk-through on something recurrent but complex.

          I’ve often ended up writing my own instructions, which are eagerly requested by coworkers. Managers tend to think it’s great that I do that, but seldom follow up by either writing instructions themselves or reviewing mine for corrections and the distributing them.

          1. Cassie*

            It’s not just the lack of instructions, but some people (a lot of people) just will not read them, or will not understand what is written, or chooses to ignore them. E.g., when the instructions state “12 pt, Times New Roman” and you get 10 pt Arial instead.

            I see it all the time with staff and professors (who all have advanced degrees). It’s not because of language either (e.g. native English speaker vs English leaner).

        5. another Hero*

          Yeah, I get the impression that some of these instances at least are ones where the answer is known and op just wants to make them remember it themselves. That’s not teaching or valuable thinking. The way the question implies op is trying to get them to a particular answer and call on a bunch of information………..that’s not the thing

        1. Clorinda*

          That’s an interesting question. Can you think of two or three possible reasons?

          1. KoiFeeder*

            1) Because it’s insufferable- Socrates wasn’t called the Mad Gadfly for no reason, after all.
            2) Because failure might result in losing the job, and that stress already hampers critical thinking.
            3) Because it’s a bad time to teach a man to fish when there’s a shark attached to his leg.

            (I know this was tongue in cheek, but I couldn’t resist)

            1. Heffalump*

              If I were one of OP’s reports, I’d be annoyed by their behavior, but I wouldn’t think they should be made to drink hemlock.

              1. KoiFeeder*

                Whoops, was that how I came across? I do not support making people drink hemlock, to be clear.

                1. Heffalump*

                  No, you didn’t come across that way in the least! I just couldn’t resist the parallel with Socrates!

                2. KoiFeeder*

                  After that one open thread where I completely tripped over my own point, I just wanted to double-check. >_>;

              2. Quill*

                To be fair, Socrates’ antics were very political at the time.

                If Pythagoras had been doing this about triangles nobody in athens would have paused.

        2. Who Plays Backgammon?*

          Because in business, where time is money and results are expected, it can feel like a brush-off, like you can’t get what you need (information) to do your job, and it can come off as demeaning and condescending. Tenured professors don’t have to worry about that stuff. The ones I worked with thought money grew on somebody else’s trees, and they were supposed to send the $$$ to the university so the professors could spend it.

          1. Alice's Rabbit*

            This method is a waste of time and money, in the vast majority of instances. OP is management, not a professor. And even most good professors don’t do this. They might not hand you the answer wholecloth, but they will at least make sure you’re looking in the right direction.
            OP’s comments about the employees only having bachelor’s degrees (while OP flaunts their mighty master’s degree) sound especially condescending, even without all the rest. But in context, I find myself having a difficult time being charitable toward the letter writer.

            1. Elemeno P.*

              Honestly, my least favorite professor when I was getting my Master’s was one who did this. I came to ask a specific question, he turned it into Pop Quiz Time on other subjects, and he clearly thought very little of me.

      2. Womanaroundtown*

        I would also quit. I’m a lawyer, this is literally the main component of law school classes – something most lawyers do not want to relive regularly. There is a time and place to actually go through an exercise like this, and it is not every time you have a question about something. It may be sometimes – but generally, this eats into productivity and momentum and feels deeply condescending. Don’t ask me questions – tell me the answer and let’s talk about why that’s the answer and do I get that.

        1. Anonymoose Esquire*

          Lawyer here too, and same. Also, from my personal experience, when associates ask a partner a question, it is because they genuinely need an answer.

          1. Anononon*

            Exactly!! Socratic method was necessary in law school because the main goal of law school was teaching you how to think. Have the “right” answer was also secondary (if relevant at all).

            Now that I’m out of law school, when I’m asking my supervising partner a question, it’s because I need to get something resolved quickly and I need to confirm if I’m correct or not. If my line of thinking is that far off, let’s debrief later. But, please, just give me the answer now!

            1. mrs__peel*

              The Socratic method doesn’t really carry over into the workforce for most lawyers! One of the main things I learned in my first few jobs out of law school was that “there’s no need to re-invent the wheel”– i.e., it doesn’t make sense to spend a huge amount of time puzzling things out and creating things from scratch when there are established processes, templates, etc., that work perfectly well.

              1. Real Life Lawyering*

                I have worked in numerous law firms. We do not create documents from scratch, ever. We take an existing document, whatever is closest to what we need, replace the client names, the amounts, rewrite whatever doesn’t fit and we’re done. That is the thing our new graduate associates have the most trouble with, coming right out of law school. They’ve spent years getting graded on reinventing the wheel, so taking a wheel and making it fit this other car, and that truck, and then the other motorcycle doesn’t sit well with them at first.

                They also tend to drive the partners crazy wanting to discuss the why of things. Partners bill by the quarter hour, they don’t want to spend time Socratically working out the why, they answer the question and move on. I think that’s why you see so many lawyers leave the law in the first year or two of real life practice. They get disillusioned when they realize that most real life lawyering is just refitting wheels over and over again. (I’m not saying lawyers never do anything else. We spent May working out the details of the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s a whole new wheel, but those moments are uncommon.)

        2. Jaydee*

          As a lawyer, I was all prepared to defend the Socratic method – until I saw that these dialogues sometimes go on for 15-30 minutes. Nooooo!!!! This is a waste of everyone’s time.

          If the employee really does know the answer (or could figure it out for themselves but just isn’t seeing it) you should be able to get them there in ~2-3 questions, which should take 5 minutes or less.

          If it is taking 15-30 minutes of extensive questioning, there is something bigger going on here.

          If it is a single employee with similar situations over and over again, then you need to have a bigger picture conversation where you walk the employee though the steps to figure out those situations.

          If it’s multiple employees with similar situations, that’s the time for an all-staff training, developing a new procedure, sending around a flowchart for how to handle those situations – whatever seems appropriate to helping all employees address those situations appropriately.

          If it’s multiple different employees with a variety of unrelated situations, then the problem is you. You have one coaching tool, and you’re trying to use it in every situation and it’s not working. You need a toolbox full of coaching tools and to understand when it’s appropriate to use Socratic questioning, when it’s appropriate to just answer the question, and when it’s appropriate to use other tools.

          1. Joielle*

            Same! A few Socratic-style questions – ok, that sounds reasonable and could be a good approach. But once you get past that, it’s basically a game of 20 questions where you’re just trying to get the employee to guess what you’re thinking. That’s not good Socratic questioning if it’s taking that long, and it would be frustrating to be on the receiving end. Any lesson that may have been learned is now lost because the employee is focused on how irritating it is.

          2. Vina*

            ” None of my team members have post-grad schooling, just bachelors degrees.”

            How is this relevant? Unless you somehow think this makes you smarter or better, then it’s not. You need to seriously ask yourself if you are coming across as someone who is looking down their noses as those without those degrees. Particularly since not everyone gets those chances to hone their raw intelligence.

            As someone with a Ph.D. and a law degree and who has been published, I would never, ever use those degrees/accomplishments as a metric to imply that I am smarter than someone who works with or for me. These are markers of experience and training, not proof of IQ or problem solving.

            My father only had a H.S. education from the 1940s. He was smarter and more logical than most lawyers I know. If you tried the socratic method on him, he would have let you know it.

            1. another Hero*

              Yeah, that line was a big yikes. I’m not sure whether it was said with scorn or to clarify that op was trying to provide them with that further opportunity. Either way, no no no

            2. teclatrans*

              I got the impression he assumed that post-graduate training is all Socratic, all the time, and that the reason his employees were flustered was because they didn’t have the training he did. I have two masters degrees and was a PhD candidate, and whoo boy, Socratic method is NOT the only approach out there. I don’t even think it’s the best approach for teaching the kind of problem-solving & critical thinking he wants to inculcate. And 30 minutes of that? Yikes!

              As a parent, one thing I have learned is that while some things have to be taught at every turn (“gentle hands!” when touching kitty, for example), most lessons don’t have to be taught every single time you turn around. There is value in letting some things slide until they are clear patterns, and then having an overarching discussion about what’s happening and what needs to be done differently, exploring what they think they could do differently, how I can support them, etc. (Um, obviously this is at an older age than the ‘gentle hands’ example!)

              OP needs to sometimes just give them the damn answer, and if employees seem to be relying on that, he should have some curiosity about why they aren’t able to become self-sufficient, and ask some questions that he doesn’t have the answer to, and help them figure out how to overcome barriers — and they may not know what he can (or is willing to) do to support them.No amount of Socratic exploration will get them that info.

            3. Alice's Rabbit*

              Glad I’m not the only one who caught that bit of academic snobbery. Many of the smartest people I know didn’t go to college, and most of the rest never bothered to pursue further education, because it’s nothing but an expensive echo chamber. Unless you need higher education for your career (like law or medical school) there’s really little point.

          3. TardyTardis*

            I would have *loved* getting some actual training on how to do things instead of being quizzed on things that I knew could go several different ways depending on who my manager was at the time. Just. Tell. Me. How. You. Want. It.

        3. AK Climpson*

          Also a lawyer and also staunchly opposed to this as the default. Even in the purest Socratic classes (no student questions or raised hands during class), professors would often answer specific questions if you talked to them after class or during office hours.

          I know plenty of people who hated the Socratic method as a teaching tool even in law school, and there are serious questions about whether it is effective pedagogy at all. I actually didn’t hate it, but it has a clear purpose there in teaching students how to think about the law. Not every problem needs a rehash of the process of thinking about it (and sometimes the easiest way to approach a problem is *asking someone who knows*). And in hierarchical or collaborative jobs, sometimes I do have a way I would approach a problem, but I need to ask about it to make sure the boss or coworkers are on the same page.

          1. Vina*

            Also, a lawyer. Never, ever did I see anyone with any skill go beyond 5-10 minutes on any topic. The socratic method is for short bursts, it’s not a sustained, long, lecture method.

            LW, please listen to us: you are using this method in a manner that is not as intended. Also, you are going way too long with your sessions. You need to change your method entirely.

            If I were on the receiving end of this, I would think the person was trying to impress me with their logical skills and superior knowledge, but actually showing me the opposite.

            1. Alice's Rabbit*

              Agreed. In addition to the general frustration OP is causing their employees, they are also wasting an inordinate amount of time, which the company is paying for. This lack of resource management smacks of serious ineptitude.
              Rather like the fastfood employee who spent 15 minutes struggling to get a quarter that had rolled behind the shelves, whose manager pointed out he’d just paid him $3 to retrieve 25 cents.

        4. mrs__peel*

          Personally, I’d rather spend the rest of my career selling pencils on the sidewalk than relive law school.

      3. spock*

        > the point is for me to teach you to fish, not fish for you every single time

        What makes you say this is “the point” of a manager?

        1. Katrinka*

          She’s not saying that is “the point: of a manager, but that is “the point” of that method of teaching (Socratic).

        2. Marcy marketer*

          If I’ve trained my employees to come to me for answers for ever question, then as I manager I would not be able to get any work done. It really is my job to get them to a point where they can do their own work without me.

          1. Amanda*

            I’ve never met anyone who’d go for their managers to every question. A manager is usually closer to their last resource, after searching the more general channels. If it’s not, then a talk with the employee might be necessary.

            So going through this routine (and for 30 minutes!!) seems very condescending, and potentially cruel. Giving the answer and explaining why it’s the answer is enough to get most people thnking. Having them guess what answer you want when they genuinely don’t know, or are having a bad week and just didn’t think about it, is just bad management.

            1. Tenebrae*

              Going to chime in. I *was* the employee who came to the manager with every question. Because she didn’t train me and her answers were inconsistent so I never knew how anything should be done (in hindsight, she was incredibly toxic). If you’re constantly being asked for clarification by employees, something’s wrong and it’s probably not them.

            2. Cassie*

              I had a coworker who would always check w/ her supervisor, on every little thing. Even when the policy was very clear about what to do about x situation. She always had to check. It was just so easy to ask her supervisor (who was very nice about it and would answer every time), because then she (the coworker) wouldn’t / couldn’t be blamed if anything was wrong. And coworker wouldn’t have to think about what needed to be done or to make judgement calls.

          2. Quill*

            As a scientist, I consider that if you’re trying to prevent employees from coming with semi-routine questions, you need more standard procedure documents. Because many things that managers think of as a question about how to do things, junior employees often consider a training or authority question.

            Training, as in “I have no idea how to add a second spout to this teapot,” or authority as in “are you SURE we should coat this teapot in white chocolate? I have come to ask you because when that white chocolate melts during the tea service, I want it on the record that the decision was not on me.”

            1. Vina*

              Yes, sounds like a place with inadequate training and support documents.

              There’s a problem with LWs method and something with the company that LW is being asked so frequently

              1. Here for randomness*

                Yup, a manager should be able to give a straight answer and also a reference on where the solution is in company documentation. For an uncommon issue, they should give a straight answer and the rationale for why this case is or is not unique. That way the employee has an immediate solution but will have the answer easily accessible in the future. It is the managers fault if there is no documentation for the common issue.

            2. teclatrans*

              What strikes me is that OP doesn’t know what the barriers are because he hasn’t shown any curiosity about this. He seems to assume that all that’s missing is critical thinking skills (and that doesn’t touch what’s wrong with his approach to teaching them).

              1. Alice's Rabbit*

                The likelihood of OP’s entire crew consisting of imbeciles incapable of critical thought is so miniscule, it borders on impossible. Occam’s Razor would indicate that the problem isn’t with the employees, but with the only common denominator: the letter writer.
                Clearly, OP didn’t learn much in the way of critical thinking and problem solving during their education, if they insist on only using a single technique which has proven ineffective.

      4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        And you could also lose your job as a manager if your style is to chase off your staff because you think your way is the only way. So there’s also that.

        If your response is “Oh well, some people will just quit” instead of reviewing your methods, you’re going to create turnover that senior leadership may not really appreciate. Your point as a manager is to get the best work out of everyone, not stroke your own ego by making them jump through your puzzle hoops.

        1. Heffalump*

          Different issue, but some years ago I worked for a sole proprietor who was verbally rude, occasionally abusive. He used to say, “It’s my company, and if people don’t like the way I talk to them, they can go to work somewhere else.”

          So I took him up on it! My manager, who was a good guy, was totally understanding about it.

      5. sunny-dee*

        Actually, no, your job is not to teach me to fish. Your job is to help be fish productively. I’m hired to do a job and, presumably, already have an idea of how to do that job. There are things that you learn through experience or which are specific to an organization or through professional development, to become better at what you do. But if I’m a CPA, you should not try to teach me addition. You should assume I know addition. If I’m asking about XYZ file, just answer my question or tell me where it can be answered; I’m not signing up for the Great Courses here.

        1. pamela voorhees*

          Right? In this metaphor, your job is not to ensure that your whole team knows how to fish. It’s to ensure that there are fish for the company to sell at the end of the day. Sure, sometimes that might be saying “hey, let’s work out a better way to fish” but other times it’s just giving a stupid answer (“Cauldron Lake is out of fish, try Crystal Lake”) especially if someone needs their answer-fish RIGHT NOW.

          1. Anonymouse*

            To be fair, I wouldn’t want to go fishing at Crystal Lake. No amount of fish is worth risking an encounter with Jason Voorhees.

              1. pamela voorhees*

                With my username I just couldn’t resist throwing in the references. :) For the curious, Cauldron Lake is from the video game Alan Wake and is also possessed by a malevolent force of darkness. They’re both very bad options — a good manager should warn employees away from both without making them jump through questioning hoops!

        2. James*

          That’s my question. A lot of companies use management as training–I’m going to manage you, and teach you how to do X, Y, and Z at the same time. “Grow your people” and all that. If the company’s pushing this, a manager may feel compelled to do more training than is strictly within their scope. At my company it’s my job to both make sure you can fish to sell, and teach the staff how to fish, scale, and dry the fish.

          If the manager is expected to grow their staff, this sort of training may be necessary. If the manager’s not, then it’s not.

      6. Anon Anon*

        Doesn’t it depend on the question and the person asking?

        Someone who is newer and is still learning I’m going to just give them the answer and try and explain why the answer is what is it is. If it’s someone who has been on staff a long time, but is dealing with a new process, again, I provide the answer directly and if they are interested try and give them context (if we have time and I can share it). If it’s an employee who has asked the same question half a dozen times and can’t seem to make connections, then I’m going to be asking them a dozen questions to get them to work it out.

        As Alison notes, coaching depends on the task and the employee. And critical thinking skills are important, but not everyone has good critical thinking skills, and not everyone needs good critical thinking skills. Perhaps they excel in other areas?

      7. Ominous Adversary*

        If you think that the Socratic method is the best way to teach someone how to fish, you’re not a very good manager.

        1. Vina*

          The method is only good at teaching people how to think, not necessarily where the answer is. LW is missing the point of why people are coming to him. They need a discrete answer. They don’t need a lesson in how to think.

          If he’s correct and there’s a fundamental problem with the people who have been hired, that’s something he should be addressing with HR. It’s not his job to reeducate everyone who works for him.

      8. Blueberry*

        So if someone asks you which closet has the fishing rods you’re going to make them go through fifteen minutes of q&a to determine which would be the likeliest closet for each class of items, rather than just saying, “closet B has the fishing rods, closet C has the bait and tackle boxes”? That would be maddening to be subjected to just for the sake of the supervisor’s ego.

      9. Essess*

        If you are spending 15-30 minutes of my time each time I come to you for a question, you are causing hardships for your staff, not helping. What you are teaching them is to avoid you. If you know the answer and they are under a deadline, give them the answer. That’s called being a team-member. If they tend to come to you with the SAME questions, that’s when it is appropriate to have a longer analysis of how to find the answer.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          This is what occurred to me. If staff know that asking the manager a question is going to cost them a half hour of valuable work time, they’re going to stop asking questions. Not because they magically learned better critical thinking skills, but because they’ve come to realize that they have a boss who is not available to offer them the kind of help they need to do their job.

          OP, five years from now, how do you want these employees to talk about you? Do you want them to say “don’t bother going to that manager for help, because you won’t get it,” or do you want them to say “that manager gave me the assistance I needed when I needed it and helped me get better at my job”? Because right now, you’re on the path toward option 1, and you have to decide if that’s the reputation you want to have.

          1. allathian*

            Yeah, they’re already preferring the other manager who actually answers their questions.

      10. Health Insurance Nerd*

        I’m with you. My approach to answering the question is really dependent on the question itself- if it’s something that I know there is no way they would be able to find the answer on their own, I’ll answer it and provide the context. If it’s a question that is being asked that clearly illustrates that they didn’t use their resources and do their due diligence, Socratic method it is!

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          Okay, but I’ve lost track of the number of times a conversation with my manager or one of my subordinates has started with “I know that I know this, but I can’t think of it off the top of my head right now.” It’s a thing that brains do sometimes. And in those situations, the Socratic method is not going to be helpful. Stress does weird things to memories, and if I’ve forgotten whether that document is on the intranet or the shared drive, my boss starting up a game of 20 questions isn’t going to make me remember it, it’s just going to make me frustrated. So even if it’s a question you think your staff should know or be able to figure out on their own, you should probably still just answer it. If the same employee asks the same kinds of questions over and over, then yeah, you should deal with that. But memory leaks happen sometimes, and going all Socratic in that case is just going to make your employee feel like crap.

          1. Health Insurance Nerd*

            Okay, I think that is totally fair, and I also believe that there is a time/place for using this method- for sure. If I have someone who is up against a deadline and having a brain fart, I would NEVER go through a whole litany of questions, that’s just mean! But someone not under the gun, who consistently expects to be spoon fed answers, not gonna happen.

            1. Ominous Adversary*

              “Spoon fed answers”? What a weird way of saying that someone is looking for information by asking another human being a question.

              If the problem is that your reports are not using available resources that contain the answers, like procedural manuals, then you redirect them to where they can find those answers next time. If they keep trying to use you as a substitute for looking something up, you have a one to one on that.

              1. another Hero*

                “What a weird way of saying that someone is looking for information by asking another human being a question.” Literally this. Asking a question is a pretty good tactic for getting information, if you’re asking the right thing to the right person! You don’t want it to be somebody’s only research skill, but good heavens, you don’t want staff who just aren’t using that tactic bc you’ve trained them that it’s going to eat up ten times as long as it needs to, which is what op is doing.

          2. Quill*

            Socratic method would deeply fuck with my memory if I encountered it in the wild at work on any regular basis, because I’ve got an anxiety disorder.

            Anxiety = bad memory = more anxiety because I’m SUPPOSED to know this… well, you get the picture. Also of note is the fact that I stop being able to form coherent spoken sentences at a certain point. OP would get five minutes in with me and I wouldn’t be able to remember what I was supposed to be asking.

            Fortunately my current work is more on the side of “how would you like me to handle deviation from procedure X?”

      11. Lunchy*

        Dealing with a manager who wants to make me take the long road and do a Brain Gym before I get an answer would deter me from asking a question at all. It’s E X H A U S T I N G dealing with someone like that, and I’m not going to put myself through it. At that point I’ll risk getting it wrong so I can get more done.

        1. azvlr*

          I had a team lead who trained me from asking her questions at all. She didn’t necessarily get all Socratic on me, but made it sound like an enormous inconvenience to her when I asked questions at all. Something that could have taken a quick phone call ended up as a scheduled meeting with her two hours later. She also asked me to write a summary of our conversations and my action plan after every one of these.

          OP should keep in mind that if you use this approach, your employees have already spent way too much time and conducted lots of mental gymnastics trying to answer the question themselves. Anything to avoid having to ask the question and look dumb.

          And I’m normally I’m a fan of the Socratic method.

        2. Mongrel*

          I’ve despised the Scoratic Method since I used to have an acquaintance do that in pub conversations.
          The subtext always seemed to be “I’m trying to get you to see that the thing you like is populist trash while I’m better for liking pretentious counter-example”

      12. A*

        I guess so! It’s not a bad thing every so often – my boss does it and I do find it helpful overall, but it’s the exception not the rule because we are in a fast paced environment and there is so much to learn that we’d never get anything done if she did this the majority of the time.

        I also think there is something to be said for being able to get an answer quickly, and then independently backtracking to self teach. If I know what the answer is, there is a strong chance I can connect the dots on the process in between and be independent on that function moving forward. I think it is an over simplification (some somewhat demeaning, if unintentional) to assume that providing the answer means the employee therefore won’t be able ‘taught to fish’.

        1. Cleopatra, Queen of Denial*

          “If I know what the answer is, there is a strong chance I can connect the dots on the process in between and be independent on that function moving forward.“

          ^^^ this!

          The most useful coaching I ever did was when I would sit my phone tech down in the chair next to me (these days I’d Webex) and let them see exactly what search terms I’m using, and what databases I’m searching.

          Many times I’d get a “whoah, I didn’t know about that database” and voila, they were twice as effective at research.

      13. PhysicsTeacher*

        15-30 minutes of this repeatedly (time stated in the question) would drive me to quit. And I’m a teacher who does this often to my students! I understand the point of this tactic, but I wouldn’t do this for more than 5 minutes to a student who had a question without giving them something more to go on. Otherwise, they get frustrated and shut down (as I would do!).

      14. Amanda*

        That depends a lot on the type of question. But if my manager did this with me every time I had a question, for up to 30 MINUTES, I would be looking for a job yesterday. And it would really impact our communication too, because I’d avoid talking to them like a plague. What if I made the wrong question and triggered this routine?

      15. Cleopatra, Queen of Denial*

        But they can’t be fishing *all* the time, can they? Sometimes you’re a subject matter expert, and it’s a small task or issue, and it doesn’t hurt to just answer the question and save the big teaching moments for later.

        I was a call center mentor once, and I realized pretty quickly that I was only seeing the questions people came to me needing help with, and they had solved plenty of questions without my help.

        At a later company, the most frustrating employee I worked with was one who was an expert in a function of our product that we rarely encountered. When I’d pick up a case, instead of answering the damn question, he wanted me to install and configure the whole server on my machine while the customer was in an emergency situation.

        Result: I just avoided those calls in the email queue and let him pick them up when they became critical. I don’t even feel bad about it, since I was *great* at my job otherwise.

      16. Kay*

        But… You’re my supervisor you’re not my teacher. I don’t need to learn how to fish every time. Sometimes I just need an answer to do the actual substantive parts of my work.

        1. Alice's Rabbit*

          Right? I don’t need an annotated history of fishing when asking if you want me to use the red lures or the yellow. Just answer the question, or refer me to the chart listing the preferred lures for different fish. Thanks.

    2. chalk bag*

      I’m a youngish woman and I have to say that I’ve pretty exclusively seen this Socratic method used by older-than-me (though not necessarily “old”) men regardless of the education level either of us have and it annoys to me no end. I’ve had plenty of supervisors who have encouraged my critical thinking and problem solving without making me feel like an idiot in front of them by asking me questions they already know the answer to. This method grates me because it assumes I haven’t tried to problem solve before coming to you, OR, speaking to Alison’s point about pick your time and place, it makes me feel like you just want to feel like you’re my benevolent Socrates and I’m sitting in audience of your wisdom in awe. Pre-COVID, I signed up for a class seminar to volunteer for an organization that maintains the biodiversity of the urban river I live right next to. Basically, picking weeds while taking hikes. The volunteer trainer tried to use the Socratic method on us to get us to identify weeds while we all stared blankly at him (If I already knew the invasive species why would I be here?) And he had this grating smirk when he finally gave us the answer. He really thought he was drilling home an important lesson to us. I thought he being a real mule if you catch my drift.

        1. HQetc*

          Ditto. And I will be pronouncing it So-kraits, a la Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

            1. Benevolent Socrates*

              In what ways do you think it would be an epic band name? What would be the purpose of this band? How would it reach the masses?


              1. Alice's Rabbit*

                Clearly it’s a Kansas cover band. Possibly putting their own spin on classic songs by revamping them in a new genre.

      1. Jan was not robbed*

        Yeah I didn’t want to say it because it didn’t seem helpful, but this approach will absolutely annoy any woman who has ever been mansplained to (i.e. every woman). If someone keeps asking the same questions, sure that’s a performance issue. But even if that is the case this is the most annoying, patronizing way to address it.

        1. Vina*

          It will also be deeply problematic if he’s white and the reports aren’t. Heck, even just the educational level disparity gives me pause. Yikes.

        2. A Non E. Mouse*

          I’m a woman in tech.

          I’d let my dude here get about 2 questions in – benefit of the doubt, maybe it’s leading somewhere useful – then bail. Just…walk out with a “Oh OK, I’ll go answer someone who knows” and let him bloviate to an audience of zero.

      2. Carlie*

        Yes, this. There are pieces of information that the Socratic method really doesn’t work for. Sure, you can figure out which is the invasive, if you take a few botany courses and learn all of the native plants of the area, and learn the growth/habit characteristics of the invasive species, and learn what each looks like at every stage of development. So come back in a year or so and I can “figure out” the answer.

        Or just show me a picture of the danged plant.

      3. Sparrow*

        My last boss had a PhD in philosophy, so you will not be surprised to learn that he favored Socractic method. I agree that it’s the presumption that you haven’t already tried problem solving yourself that’s particularly grating. I started circumventing him by prefacing any question with the steps I’d already taken/my thought process to that point, which left him a lot less room for these kinds of questions. To his credit, he paid attention to that and realized that his previous approach wasn’t particularly useful – and he adjusted accordingly.

      4. Nanani*

        YEP. The assumption that you need to be taught critical thinking (often based on gender and age!) is a big component of why its obnoxious.

      5. Not So NewReader*

        I have always thought it was a sexist habit (and yes, I do mean habit) because the only time I saw it used was when an older man was talking to a younger woman.

        I know they thought they were teaching me. I can’t learn that way. I can’t search around in my head for an answer I have never heard of. And really, were all those smirks necessary???

        I think of it as a habit because very seldom do people understand how off-putting they are. Eventually they fail to understand that they are actually hated by those around them. All this oblivion only makes their reputation worse. There seems to be no way to get them to stop playing guessing games.

        Yeah, I will adjust myself right on over to a different job.

        But heads up to middle aged men who play Socrates. If you are not playing 1000 questions with men of your own age just as much as you do younger people, you are hugely discrediting yourself. People notice in a heartbeat that you don’t do this to others who are your age and/or gender. (The same would go for middle aged women, but I can not remember ever seeing a woman use this technique.)

      6. F.M.*

        I once saw an entire class of graduate students revolt because the student leading the discussion one session decided to go Socratic method about it. And it activated the “You have an answer in mind and you’re trying to trick me into either saying what you want, or saying something wrong that you can gotcha me about, and I refuse to play” circuits in about a dozen people at once. It was fascinating/horrifying to watch.

        I felt bad for that student afterward, because it was clearly a matter of having come from a different style of undergrad than the other students in the class. I’m not sure he returned to the class more than once afterward; every other student was so clearly angry, offended, and suspicious.

        Meanwhile, if I go to my professors and ask a question, they give me an answer, and we talk about the complexities of it, or how I might find that answer myself in the future. “For terms like that, you’ll want to read ‘Generic Composition in Greek and Latin Poetry'” is an awful lot more useful to me than, “Ah, so how many divisions of paraclausitheron do you think there are likely to be?”

      7. tinybutfierce*

        THIS. I’ve personally only ever experienced it in the exact scenario you described, where I’m being talked down to by some dude who thinks he’s more intelligent than I am and needs to hold my hand as we walk through an explanation step by teeny tiny step. It immediately puts me on edge and makes me likely to avoid that person in the future as much as is humanly possible.

    3. voyager1*

      I don’t think that is fair to make this about gender, even if thad stereotyping will get a lot of agreement in the comments on a blog like this.

      The problem the manager has in this letter is they are treating their employees like students. It took two complaints for them to recognize. And now even in the letter it seems they are not convinced they need to change.

      I have seen this behavior before in managers, usually it is was from folks who had been at a higher position at another firm and were now working where I was reporting to them. I work in banking and with the many M&As out there being done, it happens where people have to take a job where they really need a job but they still think that position is beneath them. Most folks are good at soaring up the corporate ladder, but falling down it isn’t as easy for them.

      1. Junior High Teacher*

        I agree, this should not be about gender. Especially because the traditional default on this site if we don’t know the gender is “she,” and this has been the subject of gatekeeping by regulars.

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          Alison has clarified that that’s something she herself does, but doesn’t hold anyone else to.

      2. PollyQ*

        “even if thad stereotyping will get a lot of agreement in the comments on a blog like this.”


    4. r09*

      Totally agree. Also, if you’re going to use this style of “coaching,” I feel like you’re not allowed to get annoyed or frustrated if your team gets the answers wrong.

      I had a manager like this once, who would answer questions with “I really want you to be able to work this one out on your own.” But then if we did something differently than what he’d envisioned, he’d get frustrated.

      In a situation where you believe there is one specific, correct answer – you need to communicate that clearly.

      1. Kiki*

        YES. I had a manager who would do this when we’d ask, like, what font something should be. People cannot Socratic method their way to the answer to a question that is a matter of opinion! Like, yes, I could look back at every resource our department has produced and see what fonts have been used and from those options select the one I think conveys the messaging best. BUT THEN you cannot act as if the correct answer was clearly Helvetica, when that is really just your opinion.

        1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

          Or if the answer is something arbitrary. No amount of Socratic reasoning can give you the answer to “When does the client need to see this?” if the answer is “whatever day the client picked”.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        If there is one specific answer, you need to cut this out entirely and just give them the answer. Don’t make them play guessing games.

      3. GammaGirl1908*

        THIS. If what you’re really doing is playing a game of “guess what I’m thinking,” it needs to stop. The Socratic method is designed to puzzle through philosophical debates of opinion, not to figure out where the Peterson file is.

        There’s nothing wrong with sometimes asking a couple of questions to point someone in the right direction, but it’s not the right management method all the time, and especially not for 30 mins (!) with busy people who just need an answer (that you have). That goes double because LW got in this habit in grad school. You’re at work now. This isn’t school.

        1. another Hero*

          Op doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of the people who self-select to go to it don’t even like grad school lbr

      4. Joielle*

        Yes! My spouse is in a new role and his boss can be like this. He’ll ask a question and she’ll be like “Take ownership of the role! Do it how you think it should be done!” and then he does something and then it’s “Why didn’t you include X information in the report?? And send it to Y people??” and like, if you had something in mind, you should have said it. People can’t read your mind!

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Gee, the boss could, you know, take ownership of HIS role as a boss and clearly instruct his people. Just a thought.

    5. ThatGirl*

      Hmm. I agree that if something is time sensitive, just give the answer already. But I spent two years on a customer service team where we had a lot of information and research at our fingertips, you just had to look for it — now, if you’re on a call, and someone needs an answer pronto, give it. But with our email contacts, I definitely tried to show people where to find info, as opposed to looking it up for them. And I didn’t have an ulterior motive of “develop critical thinking skills,” and I’m a youngish woman. I wasn’t interrogating anyone, though – it was more “look in X folder” or “search for X in the database” or “here, let me show you where to find that for next time”.

      1. Womanaroundtown*

        But that’s not the same thing as “where do you think you would find that answer? Do we have a folder that might contain information to give you the answer?” That’s what the Socratic method entails, and it’s infuriating when all you want is “look in X folder, there might be something there,” or better yet, “do XYZ.”

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          Right if Fergus says, “How many llamas do we have in Barn 2,” and you say, “Have you checked the llama database barn report sort?” because Fergus has been working at Llamas Inc., for a year and should know how to check the database sorted by barn already, that’s the same net effect as making him puzzle it out from “Hm is there a place you could look that up?” but faster and less obnoxious.

          1. Kiki*

            That also gives Fergus the opportunity to say, “Yes, that is the first place I checked but it is not there, something weird is going and I think our software is overbooking barns and not updating the report.” Saying, “Hm, is there a place you could look that up?” to someone who does generally know what they’re doing is incredibly condescending.

            1. Half-Caf Latte*

              I disagree.

              If Fergus knows the barn report would have the answer, checked it, found a problem, and came to me for “hey how many in barn 2?” WITHOUT the context of “ I looked, and I think the report is on the fritz,” I’d be annoyed because he’d be doing the same sort of obtuse questioning we’re all annoyed with the OP for.

              1. Quill*

                The llama barn report might also be from yesterday and Fergus just needs to check that it’s still current.

              2. Not So NewReader*

                As long as you are consistent about wanting surrounding context, I see no problem. Fergus should have known you’d want the context.

                However, sometimes people don’t want context. I have worked in some very fast paced environments and explanations like this were just not done. There was no time. Know your workplace and know your boss is the best thing.

        2. Katrinka*

          “Why do you think that’s the right folder, did someone tell you or are you assuming?” “What is the basis for your assumption?” and so on and so forth. It can go down the rabbit hole very quickly.

          1. Brownie*

            This is what my boss does. “Do you know that or are you assuming?” is one of his favorite questions and always results in a rabbit hole which inevitably leaves me frustrated and angry. Instead I will spend hours researching an answer, complete with all supporting documentation from the manufacturer for justification, when an answer from him would have been 30 seconds.

      2. Observer*

        I wasn’t interrogating anyone, though – it was more “look in X folder” or “search for X in the database” or “here, let me show you where to find that for next time”.

        Well, that’s a major issue. The whole interrogation thing is ridiculous. Even just pointing people to the resource without giving them an answer directly is better than that, assuming that the resources actually have the answer the person needs.

    6. Yorick*

      I can almost see where the LW’s coming from, because in my experience some people are just helpless. But there’s a difference between asking questions like “hm, what have you already tried?” or “do you have any ideas?” and asking questions with real answers to them as though they’re small children or your students.

      1. Threeve*

        And imperfect employees who need more handholding than would be ideal are still way better than employees who have to grit their teeth through every conversation and can’t stand their boss.

    7. Alias*

      The fact of the matter is that your manager’s time is worth more than yours, and you should be factoring that in rather than simply thinking “I’m in a hurry, and I can get a fast answer out of my manager to do *my* job and go about *my* day.”

      I don’t think that employees should be overly deferential to managers, but it does take critical thinking to ask yourself “Is this something I should be able to handle on my own? Have I exhausted every possible resource before elevating it?” And not everyone does this.

      1. Womanaroundtown*

        My current manager literally talks so much and in such a rambling fashion about everything, that people have quit due to his management style. He will find you in your office, stand in the doorway, and hold you hostage to political opinions even when you ask him to stop. He will repeat himself several times. We are lawyers, and he will also do this in court, which is absurd. He treats us like his time is more valuable than ours, but it is not. We all have clients, different clients who we are individually responsible for, and we need to prepare for our hearings that happen twice a week. This is not how a good manager operates, which I know very well because I’ve also had phenomenal managers at the same agency. Not all managers are equal, and it is not okay for them to treat employees like hostages.

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        That sounds like a different conversation than the one LW is having, though.

        1. Alias*

          I was replying (or trying to) to the person who said “If I’m in a hurry, I just want an answer. I promise the employees are using their brains every day, all the time,” not the OP.

          1. filosofickle*

            Yeah, I got your response because that line really jumped out at me. Based on my experience, I promise that NOT all employees are using their brains every day, all the time. Some are. Some are not.

      3. MassMatt*

        This is all true, but I don’t think it really applies to this question. The manager who wrote the letter is the one taking additional time to engage in a dialogue vs: simply answering the question. If her time is so valuable, why isn’t she just giving the answer instead of having an employee spend 15-30 minutes (that is a LONG time!) meeting with her to finally figure it out?

        The LW even says workloads are high. Well, no wonder–people take lunches in the time it takes her to answer a question.

        1. Yorick*

          I think LW is trying to teach the employees so they don’t need to come to him/her for this stuff so often. I’m not sure whether the types of questions and discussions are actually working for that though.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            And it’s working, because you can talk to people like this for 30 minutes and STILL not know the answer. Lesson learned is “don’t ask!”.

        2. Alias*

          I was replying (or trying to) to the person who said “If I’m in a hurry, I just want an answer. I promise the employees are using their brains every day, all the time,” not the OP.

      4. Kristin*

        I completely agree but direct feedback – “You need to search for the answers before you come to me. Here are the resources you have available to you. How can I help make sure you have the information you need next time” is a FAR BETTER approach than this Socratic method. The fact the LW prefers this method kind of contradicts the point that the manager’s time is worth more.

        1. Alias*

          The OP is objectively paid more per hour so his or her time is worth more. Perhaps I should have said “OP’s time costs the company more.”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            OP is wasting company resources by playing guessing games instead of doing actual work. But there is a double loss because it’s OP’s time down the tubes and the employee’s time is also a loss.

          2. Vina*

            Yes, but OP is paid more to be a manager. That requires some managing in the form of “provide a definitive answer.” This is literally part of his or her job.

            1. Alias*

              I’m aware of that, and I wasn’t responding to OP, I responded to another comment.

      5. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

        Not every manager’s time is worth more than that of their direct reports. I’ve had managers that were amazing, and some that were worse than useless. Just because someone is paid more doesn’t mean their time is worth more; in fact, more often than not their time may be worth less because they don’t do the actual work that keeps things going.

        1. Alias*

          When I say “worth” I’m just referring to the fact that the company pays them more per hour.

          1. De*

            That’s not necessarily true, either, especially with very specialized people like engineers.

      6. Katrinka*

        But asking questions is still not the way to handle this problem either. If that were the case, LW would need to have a conversation with their direct reports about what does or does not need to be brought to the manager. And then when they ask a question again, remind them, “this is the sort of question that I told you to find on your own rather than asking me.”

      7. Another JD*

        I don’t think exhausting every resource before approaching your manager is a good metric. I’m an attorney. Our new associate asked me how to respond to requests for admissions when one of the parties was deceased. She could have spent an hour or more figuring out the answer, which we would have to write off. Instead, she asked me. I took 5 minutes to give her the rule citation and a sample response. She got back on track to finish her billable work, and so did I.

        1. Alias*

          Everyone needs to be shown things on occasion, but there’s a difference in that and someone who should know how to do something, or who’s already been given applicable guidance/information that they should be using first. In the future I would assume you wouldn’t like it if your junior attorney repeatedly asked you how to do that same task, when she’s already been given the resource of a rule citation and sample response.

          The most recent example I have is that Admin A asks Admin B to pull a spreadsheet out of our Employee Database every week, at my request. The other day Admin A asked me to look up someone’s middle name in the Database as part of a project for someone else. I told him that it would be more appropriate for him to consult the spreadsheet or ask Admin B before asking me.

        2. Kiki*

          When to ask questions definitely depends on industry, workplace, and the scenario at hand. I think that’s actually the hardest part of being a professional— knowing when to ask questions. My teachers in school drilled into me to exhaust every resource possible before coming to them for help.
          Me: how do I spell this?
          Teacher: Look it up in the dictionary!
          ~the word was pterodactyl~

          When I entered the field of software engineering, this training turned into one of my most toxic traits that was hardest to unlearn. There are so many things that would take a junior employee 6 hours to figure out but 1 minute for a more senior employee to help me with. My manager had to remind me several times that asking for help was always a-okay in this office and promised me that he would never think anything I ask is stupid because he knew how much I would try to figure something out before asking.

          All this to say: asking questions is a balance and different people need different advice.

      8. Amanda*

        But it sounds like this manager is wasting a lot more time by trying to lead the employees to the answer by a long winding road.

        This method would effectively train me to not go to my manager for answers at all, and that doesn’t work well in any functional workplace. Not to mention, employees who hate their manager’s style will start job searching sooner rather than later.

      9. Quill*

        If OP is willing to spend half an hour teaching their employees to fish, prior to even determining if it’s something they need an authoritative instruction on or a reference to an old file or project, then OP’s problem is not one of their time being too valuable to waste.

      10. Observer*

        If the issue is that the manager’s time is worth more than their direct reports’ the OP is taking the WORST way to deal with it. Because they are not saving any time for themselves either. If they are doing these 15-30 minute sessions multiple times a week that’s hours of time spent on non-productive “coaching”. What’s falling by the wayside.

        The right way for a manager to deal with that is to look for patterns and address those. And, where reasonable, point the questioner to the resource they need. So, “the process for that is in the Blue binder” or “the directions for all processes related to system x are in the Bloppity folder on the Q drive.”

      11. Kayakmm*

        If my boss has up to 30 minutes free to Socratic method an answer rather than give me a 30 second response then I question whether their time is actually more valuable.

      12. Alice's Rabbit*

        That is the exact opposite message of the one the letter writer is sending. A manager whose time is valuable is hardly going to waste 30 minutes (what in the world could take that long to answer?) every single time their employees have a question.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        Hah! That shows me not to make those assumptions. I’d have bet decent money that it was a man. Thank you.

    8. MyCorona*

      I would not tolerate this at all. You state that your employees are all very busy, so why are you taking valuable time that they could just be getting their work completed if only you just give them the answer already! And as a new manager, how well acquainted are you with your team — do you think they all need to think the way that you do? Being lectured/talked at would cause me to resent you so hard (and totally lose respect for you) as a manager.

    9. Cautionary tail*

      +1 Jan. I’m asking you because I have a question and need to deal with something. Don’t give me BS crap.

    10. Quill*

      In general, I don’t need a lesson during the workday: I need you to sign off on a judgement call, double check a strategy, approve my prioritization, or find a resource that’s more accessable as a manager.

      If I do something so infrequently that I don’t learn how to do it, or do something frequently and it has enough exceptions that I continually need to clarify, we need a standard operating procedure, period.

      I wouldn’t mind the socratic method if we were solving a novel problem, but if it’s routine, it’s more likely an authority issue than a critical thinking issue.

    11. Koalafied*

      Yeah, someone who acknowledges that the workload is higher than normal in the same breath as they justify turning what sound like all questions into impromptu learning opportunities up to 20(!!) minutes long.

      Wasting a busy person’s time is a cardinal sin.

    12. What is UX anyway?*

      OH yeah, I would be out the door. Odds are if I’m asking 1) I looked and was unsure, or 2) I forgot and needed to just know the answer so the job could get done. If I need to have something done in the next 30 minutes, I really just need the answer.

    13. Curmudgeon in California*

      Seriously. I get annoyed as hell when people answer with “just read the code” when I ask for something that should be documented in a wiki. If I had time to wade through their crappy code base to fix the problem I wouldn’t be asking them! If that’s how my manager answered? My resume would be in aggressive circulation.

    14. Librarian1*

      Yeah, I found this extremely annoying. Especially because work issues (in my job anyway) are nowhere near as intellectually stimulating as academic questions.

    15. BasicWitch*

      I was trained by someone like this in a previous job. It drove my anxiety straight through the roof to get a pop quiz every time I had a question, or worse, get asked, “what do YOU think the answer is?”

      In the end I didn’t learn much besides to avoid asking questions (and this went about as well as you’d expect).

    16. Stormy Weather*

      I would quit this manager too. I’ve never had someone respond this way where it didn’t come across as condescending or as if the manager thought I was stupid.

      When I had direct reports, my method was to provide the answer, and also supply the way I got to it. Maybe I didn’t explain something well in the first place and that’s on me.

  2. Roscoe*

    Yeah, this would get old real quick for me. Especially if they have a high work load and you are taking 15-30 minutes sussing out info that you could’ve just given them in 2 minutes. I’d think about whether or not you really need to do this every time. Sometimes, you forget stuff. And you don’t want to have a mystery trying to figure it out, you just want the answer. Trust me, this is going to make them dread going to you for help, so they will either do it wrong or ask for help from someone else. And I wouldn’t blame them.

    Also, then end about them only having bachelors degree was very condescending, and I say that as someone who does have a masters degree.

    1. Threeve*

      Big difference between training someone to do their job well and trying to train them how to think. The latter is hugely overstepping. And believing that your thinking style is inherently superior to someone with less education is…problematic.

      Lots and lots of rockstar employees are not the type to parse through every potential solution or path before asking for help when they know an answer already exists; they ask, they get an answer, they implement it well, then they remember it and apply it to similar situations. Boom, good at their job.

      1. Koalafied*

        One of the things I wish Alison had included, though I think I know why she didn’t, was to question whether his belief that the employees need to learn critical thinking and problem-solving is really true. She was probably trying to stay away from the condescending thing, but the truth is that plenty of jobs don’t require those things. In some of them, demonstrating those skills will earn you a higher pay rate or promotion into a role that does, and in others it could get you reprimanded or fired because you’re expected to follow instructions and ask for instruction from someone with authority if a novel situation arises. When I worked at a fast food place as a delivery driver, if something unusual happened that I had no instructions for dealing with, I was supposed to call the manager and ask how to proceed. I was perfectly capable of solving the problems should they have wanted me to, but they didn’t want to give up control or give me that much autonomy.

        In fact, this principle applies in some situations even in jobs that do require critical thinking and problem-solving and roles that have plenty of autonomy. I have plenty of decision-making authority in my role, and my manager would be horrified if I tried to review a contract myself instead of forwarding it to the attorneys.

        The fact that this other manager who subs in is able to just give them the answers and send them back to their work suggests to me that it may not actually be necessary for them to be able to solve the problems themselves. It might just be a ‘nice-to-have’ that could help set them up for a promotion or earn them a merit increase.

        1. mrs__peel*

          Yep– a lot of lower-level employees really aren’t given any authority to make judgment calls in many workplaces, and can get in serious trouble if they try to wing it.

          I’ve worked in offices like this, where I could certainly *think of* a reasonable way to handle a particular situation, but I was required to get a manager’s approval and could take only the officially approved action or else risk losing my job.

        2. Observer*

          The fact that this other manager who subs in is able to just give them the answers and send them back to their work suggests to me that it may not actually be necessary for them to be able to solve the problems themselves.

          I was thinking the same thing.

        3. Sandan Librarian*

          This reminds me of when I applied to Walgreens as a side job to make some extra money, and the hiring manager took me aside after I’d completed their electronic testing stuff and told me that all of my answers indicated (by Walgreens’ metric) that I am better manager material than standard employee material, and that technically they shouldn’t be hiring me for the position I applied for at all, based on that, because I’d be too independent and inclined to take charge in situations where I ought to call for a manager. I told them that if the company policy preferred I call for a manager, I would be more than happy to do that and I got the job. (That said, they then neglected to give me any hours for a month and by the time they did, I’d been on the schedule for two weeks before a better job offer came through and I resigned.)

    2. Emma*

      Yeah, I was sort of on board with him until that. At that point he stopped being reasonable and started being classist, or whatever -ist you want to apply to someone who looks down on those without as much higher education as they have.

      1. Pomona Sprout*


        That’s how it strikes me. I have a master’s degree, and I was required to develop and demonstrate good critical thinking skills in order to earn it. I have held both jobs that required me to apply those skills and jobs that didn’t require or in some cases even allow me to apply them. I’m actually pretty proud of those skills and have enjoyed using them when I’ve had the opportunity, but I don’t recall ever feeling that having them made me somehow superior to anyone else, and the idea of that seems elitist to me.

    3. MistOrMister*

      There are times when my brain just refuses to work and I need to ask a quick question. Its not that I don’t want to think, my brain just shorts out and in this one instance, I can’t remember the answer. It would drive me bonkers to have the boss spend 30 minutes picking a path to the answer instead of just answering!! Yeesh

    4. DarnTheMan*

      More than once, especially recently as we’re trying to all juggle a million things at once, I have sent my manager a note that amounts to “I know we have X and I’ve looked in eight different places but the exact location of X is currently escaping me – could you remind me.” If they tried to pull the Socratic method on me to get me to figure out what sub-folder X was located in, I’d stop asking questions ASAP.

  3. CatCat*

    “Plus, they are uncomfortable with me knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of me.”

    The risk here is that they will stop coming to you and instead of reaching the right conclusion on their own, they’ll just run with their wrong conclusion.

    Think also about your tone and phrasing. Not sure what it is, but it can make a big difference between being seen as helpful/providing training vs. being infuriatingly condescending.

    1. fposte*

      Yes, that line leapt out at me this time too. That’s exactly what this practice creates–a huge vulnerability asymmetry that’s all on their part and none on yours. And that’s not how managing works; you have to take responsibility for what your team does and what you’ve told your team to do. Right now the only side risking error is their side.

      1. Quill*

        My awful boss did this – and it did not HELP whatsoever that we did not share a first language, that everything at pig lab from hell was a disorganized mess, or that he apparently thought that when it came to two chemicals with similar names he could just say the part of the name that was the exact same and have me telepathically know which one it was, because “that’s just the right one.”

        1. KraazIvaan*

          Now I’m imagining going a supervisor and asking something like, “For earwax removal, should we say to use hydrogen peroxide or hydrogen sulfide?”, and being told, “The hydrogen one.”

    2. LQ*

      I have a couple of think out loud people on my team who really like this. All I’m doing is giving their brain some fodder while they chew through the answer themselves, they just do it out loud. But the think quietly and digest and come back with a solution people really really hate this.

      If you are doing this multiple times a day it’s going to be a problem, both for you having time to do your job (which isn’t actually socratic methoding all day long) and for your team getting work done. And then on top of that, people who don’t have 30 minutes who just want an answer will start making them up.

      Even for the think out loud people who really like to be around other humans and love this kind of conversation I only do it with them once every few weeks for a 30 minute plus thing. (There’s usually a few 3-5 minute things a week.)

      1. LQ*

        ack that was supposed to be free standing. But yeah. The tone and phrasing as well as the person on the other side both matter to your point :)

      2. Koalafied*

        Yep, I often talk things through with my manager, but it’s me initiating. I’m not coming to them for a quick answer and getting stuck in a 15 minute lecture. Usually at our weekly check-in, I’ll say something like, “So, I wanted to talk about [problem]. [Background] has been happening, and I need to have a solution by the end of the week. I think that [proposed solution/option] is the right course, but I know it’s likely to [have negative consequences]. [Alternative option] is on the table, but I’d really like to avoid [other negative consequences that I think are probably worse]. I wanted to check in and get your thoughts to see if that makes sense to you or if there’s something else I should be considering.”

    3. Oryx*

      Exactly. Feeling uncomfortable in that situation is a learned behavior from previous interactions with OP. That’s not something the employees came up with in a vaccuum, it’s in reaction to how the OP has treated them in the past.

    4. Pennalynn Lott*

      Yep. After reading the letter I’d already decided that, if this were my manager, I would (1) quit asking questions, and (2) look for another job.

      1. Amanda*

        Yep, I’d absolutely do the same! Except for (1), I’d actually do my best to quit talking to this manager at all, in case I accidentally asked a random question and started this crazy 30-minutes routine.

    5. Pomona Sprout*

      “Plus, they are uncomfortable with me knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of me.”

      Of course they are uncomfortable. Nobody want to feel like their boss thinks they’re a dummy, and that’s probably how this is making them feel.

      I would definitely stop bringing questions to a manager who put me through this sort of thing on a regular basis. I have a hard time asking questions/revealing ignorance anyway: it’s a hangup, I know it’s a hangup, and I’ve worked on it, but it’s still lurking in the back of my mind all the damned time. A boss who played what would feel like guessing games with me every time I asked him a question would trigger every impostor syndrome insecurity I have, and I would bend over backwards to avoid being in that situation.

    6. another Hero*

      Yeah your employees should be comfortable with you knowing things they don’t – not everyone has the same knowledge base. I ask coworkers about their areas of expertise regularly. If the employees are uncomfortable, op has created that discomfort.

  4. Katrinka*

    Ugh, my ExH used to do this every time we argued. He learned it in HS and college. I told him repeatedly that it made me feel backed into a corner, especially when he would keep pushing it and not let it go. I agree with Alison – this can’t be a manager’s default reaction to questions. I think it would be more helpful if you’re trying to problem-solve when neither of you know the answer or in a post-mortem discussion of challenges in a project.

    1. Agreed*

      Doing this in a personal relationship is very different from doing this in a professional setting where problem-solving is required. I do something similar to my mentees who need to learn to work through problems, but if I did it with my partner I’d justifiably be “out on my ass”.

      1. Katrinka*

        I realize, I was just explaining that my knee-jerk reaction is going to be initially negative. But I went on to explain in what professional context I thought it was appropriate.

    2. Mutt*

      I wonder if the term “sea lioning” would apply to that. It’s the first thing I think of when I encounter bs like this. I wouldn’t last long under a boss who thinks himself so far superior to us that he has to “teach us how to learn”, especially if that is actually impeding my ability to do my job as much as it seems to be hurting this manager’s employees. Geez.

      1. Quill*

        Yeah, my instant response to, in my case specifically men who think they need to teach me how to think is one of instant anger. On what basis, sir, are you concluding that I don’t already know how? Is it the fact that I have boobs?

        I had a long academic life of being ‘the smartest one in the room’ when it came to being asked to do extra work, but the moment a boy without a speech impediment or a rampant case of undiagnosed anxiety needed an accolade, well, sit down little lady, he must be smarter than you because he’s a better speaker! No, there’s absolutely no systemic biases that created your anxiety problem in the first place factoring into our decision.

        1. Not a cat*

          Wow! Is this comment about you working out some personal trauma or to “help” the OP? Seems to me to be the former.

    3. Paulina*

      Ugh. I frequently teach socratically in university, but it’s not one-size-fits-all as a technique. As with any approach, it’s important to know not just how to do it but also when not to! And I’m actually supposed to be teaching my students how to think, while it’s incredibly presumptive to unleash it on people who just have a question that needs an answer. (Would you do it to someone who was asking for directions? What might you do instead?)

      Teaching needs to have purpose, and also focus. If you make people puzzle everything out, you’re likely muddying specific things you want them to learn, so the only take-home is your overall low opinion of their thinking skills. Nobody wants to sign up for that, and the hit to their morale doesn’t help their problem-solving abilities. Worse still if it’s being directed to a partner in a relationship, but either way it’s a terrible thing to be always doing to someone who’s asking for help.

      1. arjumand*

        Yeah, I do that with my high-school age students (or I did that, sob. Right now their webcams default to off, so I can’t be sure any question I ask will ever be answered). The thought of doing that to colleagues (or having it done to me) gives me the heebie jeebies.

        Sure, if the same question has been asked many times, I might try to gently bring up what was done earlier. but ultimately I see it as a kind of workplace gatekeeping – I wonder how OP ended up resolving the fact that her employees avoided asking her questions because they were tired of jumping through hoops to get the answers!

  5. Kristin*

    This letter basically sums up why I sometimes see too much education as a red flag rather than a benefit on a resume. I’ve hired a few academics and it’s honestly kind of a nightmare trying to work with them. Your response is pitch perfect as always, and much more constructive than my immediate reaction was!

    1. Mazzy*

      Yup, it’s like, you can ask probing questions, but can you do work and finish projects? Also I am not against this method but it should last a minute or two, until you see the person’s gears turning, not 15 minutes!

      1. chalk bag*

        There’s also less condescending ways to get the gears turning. I work in a process and checklist heavy field – we’re not expected to have the workflows memorized, we’re expected to know where to find the relevant documentation when we need it. My supervisor, having made similar mistakes when learning, would ask leading questions to get me to answer my own question while training. Instead of “What went wrong?” and staring at me, she’d look at what’d I’d done and ask something like “What happened when you executed task A?” and that was often enough for me to catch up (oh right, B is supposed to happen but I saw C and skipped a step.)

    2. CheeseGirl*

      Yes, and I’m glad Allison included the last sentence in her reply. I went to grad school and have a Masters, but if my boss did this to me all the time, I would absolutely be frustrated. ESPECIALLY if the whole process lasts 30 MINUTES!? And my default would definitely not be to wonder if my boss learned it in grad school – I would just be annoyed.

      1. Seal*

        Same here. I have 2 masters degrees, including one in library science, but I put off going to grad school for years because of the constant condescension that the librarians I worked with aimed at the other staff members who didn’t have an MLIS. While getting a masters degree is an accomplishment, that’s really all it is – proof you were able to meet the specific requirement to get that specific degree. Having one or more doesn’t mean that you’re smarter or better than anyone else – there are plenty of well-educated idiots out there. There’s a time and a place to brainstorm. Forcing your staff to do so for every single question they have is not just condescending but flat out ridiculous.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          Oh, the subset of librarians who feel superior to non-librarian staff is infuriating to me. The paraprofessional staff I’ve worked with are spectacular, full stop. Not everybody needs or wants to go to grad school, and people can be excellent at their jobs with any level of education.

          I consider my Master’s Degree to be the password that allows me to have the job I want. Sure, I learned some good and useful skills, but mostly I just needed to have the piece of paper so I could have this job.

          1. anonny*

            Thank you for saying this! I’ve been working at an academic library for a couple of years as a staff member and the elitism has been getting to me, especially lately.

    3. Pipe Organ Guy*

      I think maybe too much academic job experience might be more of a red flag; the possessor might not have taken or might not have had opportunities to find out how the world outside academia functions. Granted, someone fresh out of college may not have much reference to moderate an academic response to life.

      I agree that Alison’s response is great, especially the last paragraph. Not everyone wants or needs post-baccalaureate degrees! Lots of people take bachelor’s degrees and lots of other degrees and certifications to high levels.

    4. Rock Prof*

      I think it’s really a lack of experience, or purposefully pandemic move, even for academics. Like, I sometimes have my students puzzle through their questions, but sometimes their questions are just clarifications or asking things might higher order than covered in class. Answering those with Socratic methods would be so annoying! And if never think of doing this with my colleagues!

      1. Rock Prof*

        Maybe I need to apply some Socratic thinking to my phone typing? I meant, ‘I’d never think of doing this with my colleagues’

      2. Rock Prof*

        By pandemic, I mean pedantic. Clearly I’m typing one of those a lot more than the other.

      3. Paulina*

        Yes! There are many tools in the teaching and explaining toolkit, with the Socratic method being only one.

    5. Susie Q*

      Yes. My boss has a PhD and kinda sucks at parts of his job which is explaining things in simple terms to customers. He’s too smart for his own good. I’ve noticed this as a pattern among other PhDs in my field. They live in the theoretical without any regard for the practical.

    6. AcademiaNut*

      I *am* an academic (PhD, work in a research environment), and this would drive me up the wall.

      The thing about the Socratic, lead the person through the thought process to the answer approach is that it’s a teaching method, and is therefore something that occurs between teacher and student. So if you’re supervising a graduate student or intern, it’s appropriate – they’re paying money to learn how to do high level research. Even then, it can be done well (working through a thought process together), and badly (let’s play “guess what my supervisor is thinking” or “make the student feel stupid”). And if we’re talking about stuff like how to find information, it’s overkill – you say “Have you checked X” and send the student off to do so.

      It’s not something you generally see in a supervisory relationship with non students, except maybe for a junior postdoc who is having trouble learning how to work independently. My position is a staff position – sometimes I go to my supervisor to talk through a problem or piece of analysis, and I got to colleagues when I have questions about how to do stuff that I can’t figure out my own, but the Socratic method is not part of that process.

    7. BasicWitch*

      I used to work with a bunch of PhD’s. I love ‘em, but it was more like being a babysitter than an office assistant. Very poor social skills and also a lack of basic knowledge on things like how to put dishes in the dishwasher in the office kitchen. Education makes you educated, not smart.

  6. Richard Hershberger*

    “Also, it’s important for you to tell them what you’re doing and why.”

    It seems to me that they understand exactly what the LW is doing and why: hence their reference to the Socratic method. The LW seems dangerously close to trying to keep her subordinates from bothering her with questions.

  7. jaime*

    I was almost with OP until they mentioned grad school vs undergrad. Yes, employees should have critical thinking skills – if they’re coming to you with questions that can easily be solved by an efficient search of the computer system, then yeah, they need to figure out how to search the computer system. But all that takes is asking “did you look in X System?” You’re not a professor, they’re not students.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      Critical thinking skills: We sometimes see this from (by no means all, or even most) lawyers, who seem to think that critical thinking skills can only be acquired via three years of law school. *snort* They will ponderously talk about “thinking like a lawyer.” Spoiler: thinking like a lawyer is mostly keeping straight what you are arguing about, sometimes juggling multiple arguments along the way. Many lawyers are terrible at this, but the good ones are very good at it. As are people in lots of fields. Only (some) lawyers imagine it to be unique to their field.

      1. mrs__peel*

        When I was in law school, I was astonished at how many people came *into* the program as condescending blowhards (considering that most of us were only in our early 20s at that point).

        And it only got worse over time…

    2. HamlindigoBlue*

      Same. Some of us with “just bachelors [sic] degrees” are perfectly capable of thinking critically (sorry, the irresistible urge to be petty was overwhelming). The ROI on a grad degree never made sense for me. If my manager ever made a comment like that, whether the intent is to look down on the education of their reports or not, it would drastically lower my opinion of them and stay with me. Just ick.

      Spot-on advice from Alison, as usual.

      1. Anon Anon*

        I had a wise prof tell when I was in college, only go to grad school if it’s free. Don’t go if you have to pay for the privileged, because you won’t get your money back over the long-term. It was great advice. I did go to grad school, but it cost me nothing between my tuition waiver and stipend. I had a great experience, but it wasn’t one I’d pay for and it hasn’t helped much in my career.

        Plus, I’ve hired and known too many people with graduate degrees who couldn’t do the job we hire them to do.

        1. A*

          “Plus, I’ve hired and known too many people with graduate degrees who couldn’t do the job we hire them to do.”

          This. Being a part of hiring panels was the number one influencing factor in me deciding not to pursue a graduate degree (which had been fueled by the incorrect assumption that more education = more capable, not directly tied to specific opportunities).

        2. Well...*

          Yes… But even if it’s free I’ve seen really awful financial situations. Like people going into debt (or even homeless) because the stipend is so low it can’t cover rent. Also some programs drag on forever.

          There was a professor in my grad program who took on students and held their degrees over their heads to get them to stay longer and work without pay “one more year…” Eventually the tuition waiver would expire so they were forced to either pay tuition themselves (despite assurances when they entered the program that it would be covered) or throw away six years of phd work without a degree. One student got strung along for 12 years before she finally got her degree. Most dropped out of the program at the end of year 6.

          He also specifically targeted women for his labs so that his “they are just incompetent tho” justification kept working for him.

          I loved my time in grad school but it is a deeply flawed and dangerous place sometimes.

      2. Pennalynn Lott*

        I have to throw in #NotAllGradPrograms.

        My Master’s in Accounting is why I was initially hired at Company A, straight out of school in a mid-COLA area [North Texas] at $75K for a starting salary (vs $60K for a Bachelor’s new grad); and it’s a huge reason why I’m now making [pre-6% temporary COVID salary reduction] $85K after just barely one year of experience in the field. What I learned in my Master’s program is directly translatable to what I do in my day-to-day job.

        Assuming COVID doesn’t destroy the economy completely, I’ll have my grad loans paid in 3 years, and all of my future raises will be based on a percentage of my [higher] starting salary.

        So, for some programs, the ROI is definitely there.

        1. HamlindigoBlue*

          Right, I totally agree with that. That’s why I said it didn’t make sense “for me.” I’m in IT, and one can make six figures without a grad degree (or even a four year degree for that matter). Experience is what matters the most in this field, and industry certifications seem to hold more weight than any kind of degree. For finance/accounting, the ROI is there. That’s great that your loans should be paid in 3 years. I was so glad to be done with my payments for my four year degree.

        2. RemoteHealthWorker*

          Eh. I have been promoted above many MBAs and accountants.

          It depends on not just your program but your region.

    3. Shirley Keeldar*

      It occurs to me that there’s a real distinction between the goals of a classroom vs those of a workplace. (Okay, I guess that’s obvious, but…) In a classroom, all of the people are trying to acquire the same knowledge/thinking skills/etc. The job of the professor is to get the students closer to where he/she is. But in a workplace, specialization is the norm. Everybody’s NOT supposed to have the same knowledge; we have experts because that’s more efficient. So we have to ask each other questions!

    4. Reluctant Manager*

      Oh HELL no. I am very proud of my education, even if it’s “only” a bachelor’s degree, and someone who patronized me about it would definitely bring out the worst in me as an employee. I would feel bad about letting my boss fall on her face at every occasion, but I would 100% do it.

      LW may be the boss now, but if she doesn’t get buy-in from her team, she will not succeed as a manager. Employees with good people skills often overtake better trained colleagues in career progress.

      LW should talk to her boss for guidance. See if this Socratic method is what the company actually walks.

  8. AliV*

    Omg my grandboss does this and I HATE it.

    In a different environment I would like it actually. But in my current role there’s zero weight given to input and ideas from below. Everything comes top-down.

    So my answers to her questions are just me guessing what she wants and then saying that.

  9. arcya*

    Oh goodness, I have PhD and if my manager was like “let’s think through this” every time I asked if we’re doing next week’s functional group meeting or whatever? I would lose my whole mind

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Ditto. In my experience in higher ed, it’s not the Socratic method or thinking things through that’s the problem. The problem is more likely to be ENDLESSLY thinking about every permutation of what might happen if X goes forward without making any decisions about X until the heat death of the universe.

    1. Prosaic*

      I was thinking the same thing. I have a PhD and work in a field where many of my colleagues have PhDs as well (biotech), and the vast majority of them do not function like this. 99% of the time when we have a question, we just want a straight answer so we can get on with the task at hand.

    2. Venus*

      I’m also annoyed by the attitude.

      I work with hundreds of non-academic researchers who all have Master’s and PhDs, and only the assholes would try this condescending behaviour.

      Our work is problem-solving and critical thinking, so we are often discussing problems for 15-30 minutes, yet our bosses and coworkers aren’t jerks and don’t play games.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      And the condescending word, “let’s”. No. You have already thought it through and you already know the answer. What you actually mean to say is “Let ME make you jump through hoops for an answer that I can spout off in 2 minutes.”

    1. EPLawyer*

      Oh my yes. If the workload is high and people are busy they DO NOT want to spend time puzzling through a logic problem. They need the answer so they can get back to work. Also, you can teach them how to think without turning it into 20 questions. I need to know X. here is the answer, it can be found here when you need it next.

      If they are repeatedly coming to you with the same question, THEN you work through it. But if its just how do I do Y which only comes up every six months, just bloody tell them how to do Y or where to find the documentation of how to do it. Don’t walk them through every step and quizzing them about why the step is that way.

    2. PhysicsTeacher*

      This reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where George asks the guy in the airport what time it is and he will only answer “There’s a clock right over there” even though he’s wearing a watch.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Except of course if you are Socrates, Jr. Then you ask, “Well, what types of resources would assist you in finding an answer to that question? And how will you know an accurate answer when you see it?”

    4. PhyllisB*

      I see you’ve met my husband. It’s so hard to get a straight answer from him; it always comes with a lecture. When my kids were teens, a friend of my son’s asked me a question (can’t remember what, but I think it was a science or math question. ) I answered him but said, “Why didn’t you ask Mr.B? I would think he could give a better answer.” He said, “he would tell me more than I want to know. “

  10. Elemeno P.*

    I work with a guy who does this and it drives me nuts. Thankfully, we have a good rapport so I can usually tell him directly when he’s being frustrating and to just tell me what he would like me to do since I need his approval to move forward.

    f you see a mistake, just tell them what the mistake is. We are all human and all make mistakes. If you do the “now what do you think is wrong with this sentence” thing with a person you hired to write, it’s very condescending; it’s much more direct to say, “I think that there’s a tense inconsistency in this sentence.” If they do the same thing all the time, THAT’s the time for a conversation about that specific issue.

    If you want your team to take more initiative on certain things, tell them that in a separate conversation, not when they need your input right then. And yes, sometimes they just need you to tell them what to do because that’s your job; I am a PhD candidate and have more formal education than my boss, but he gets paid to make the judgement call in certain situations, not me. It’s nothing to do with a lack of critical thinking skills.

    1. Elemeno P.*

      (If, for example, I sent my boss this comment, I would hope that he would say, “You’re missing the letter ‘i’ in ‘if’ at the beginning of your second paragraph” instead of, “What do you think is missing in this text?”)

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        My boss once sent me back a draft of a report saying, “Do this over, it’s not good enough.” “Can you tell me what was wrong with it or what needs to be changed?” “The whole thing, just re-do it.” Then he didn’t like the revised version. I pride myself on my ability to think critically, but don’t send me off to think critically when all you want is for me to follow a direction.

        1. Quill*

          Oh, I’ll think “critically” but it won’t be the way he’s thinking and it won’t be about the report!

  11. f ehsan*

    omg this would drive me nuts about a manager! it feels so demeaning and holier-than-thou.

    1. Mazzy*

      Exactly. And I don’t know what kind of questions they’re asking, but the answer to alot of questions I get boil down to “years ago we did X wrong for a while, on purpose, because we were too busy with Y to do it properly or fix the system,” i.e., things no one should be expected to guess.

    2. OtherSide*

      Absolutely, especially with the quip about grad school. I’ve worked with people who have a GED to those who have multiple PHD’s. People just want an answer sometimes. I’ve actually found that those with more education tend to see out people who can give them a straight, quick answer whereas those who were not as well educated followed chains of command which resulted in them being demeaned by those who felt powerful and then caught in an endless cycle of low level work and ‘poor’ performance.

    3. willow for now*

      Oh, it is. Especially if they never name it as the Socratic method, so I would at least know they were playing a game. Rather than being just a generic a$$hole.

      My boss and I once spent 45 minutes Socratic-ing whether that punctuation mark should be a comma or a semicolon. So you can imagine how horrifying it was to have to ask more involved questions.

      1. Paulina*

        And at least sometimes the need for an answer may easily be due to lack of information or a misunderstanding — I’ve had plenty of times where someone gives me a long let’s-walk-through-this response when the real issue is I didn’t quite make out a specific word they said, or know context they didn’t say at all. It’s condescending to assume that what people lack is thinking abilities rather than simple information or clarification, or that it’s your role to teach them to think the way you do.

        1. willow for now*

          didn’t make out a specific word they said – yes, this! I have started to just say, “Please say the same words you just said, because I didn’t hear them” – because otherwise, typically they will go off on a long-winded explanation of something I didn’t hear in the first place!

      2. Glitsy Gus*

        Exactly this. If it’s an issue I’ve had several times,and there’s a little bit of time available, sure, OK. It can be good to take the time to go through the process.

        But if I just need the info because 8 overdue deadlines count on this one piece of information? Please just f-ing tell me the answer. It is not time to start playing this kind of game when I’m already frustrated and time is of the essence. Always needing to go down the long road is just going to lead to your team members trying to work around you rather than with you.

  12. Baking cookies today*

    15 to 30 minutes? when you’re all busy with high workloads, and you’re commenting on their having less schooling. I’ve had post grad schooling and would consider you a reason to quit.

    1. BRR*

      The 15 to 30 minutes part jumped out at me too. I’m sure their are situations where it happens but it probably shouldn’t take that long to get someone to an answer by stimulating their thinking. At that point it’s more likely you need to switch to figuring out an answer together because the problem is complex or they’re under performing or something. As Alison wrote, it’s not appropriate for every situation.

      But props to the LW for being concerned there was a bad pattern developing.

      1. AthenaC*

        If it takes 15 – 30 minutes every time, and (presumably) the person actually does reason their way to the answer, my first reaction is that all the other managers are enabling bad habits by just giving their folks the answer, rather than empowering them for the long term by teaching them how to be more effective on their own.

        But that’s my own experience / professional field clouding my vision.

      2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        15-30 minutes each time suggests to me that LW doesn’t have enough real work to do and is expanding her “managing” to fill her day.

        I’m a great believer that people need to know why to do things properly, but in a workplace you assume maturity and competence, and this constant Socra-teasing would jar against those assumptions.

        (pun very much intended sorry not sorry)

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Count me in as another employee who would move on. I would privately conclude that a Socrates, Jr. had absolutely no idea how to manage people and work flows.

    3. tinybutfierce*

      Agreed. If every simple answer I need turns into a 15-30 minute conversation, I’m just going to stop going to that person for answers, at the least.

  13. NerdyKris*

    I used to work somewhere that would do something similar.
    “How do I do X?”
    “Did you check the documentation?”
    “It’s not in there, so how do I do it?”
    “Did you really check the documentation?”
    “Are you saying it is in there? Could you tell me where to look?”
    “Did you check the documentation”

    Not quite the same, but a similar obsession with forcing people to puzzle out answers at the worst possible time. Oh and it wasn’t in the documentation. It never was.

    1. Liz*

      this reminds me a little bit of my boss, except in his case, he’ll send me either cryptic or incomplete questions or responses. So while I may KIND of know what he’s looking for, it’s not always clear. And he’s been known to get snippy when i ask for clarification, like i should KNOW what he wants.

    2. Spencer Hastings*

      I had one like that too, except it was more like:

      “How do I do X?”
      “What do the instructions say?”
      “Those *are* the instructions.”

      I think that person eventually figured out that I tried to figure things out on my own almost to a fault, such that if I was asking anyone anything, I’d tried to puzzle it out on my own quite a bit already and I actually had just come up against the limits of my knowledge or experience.

      1. Batty Twerp*

        When I’ve coached people on my team I ask two questions: “What do the notes say?” and “What have you tried so far?”
        Mind you, this is usually in response to “Can I pick your brain?”, so in reality it’s my way of replying “Only if you’ve engaged yours first.” This has actually cut the number of queries by about 40-60% (depending on the team member)

        Plus, this gives me vital information about *how* to help them. If I go straight in with the answer, without context or knowing what steps they’ve already taken, OMG has that bitten me on the bottom before now!

        There’s a middle ground between OPs current approach, and what they’re afraid of not doing (“spoon feeding”), and it’s pretty much about knowing your audience and tailoring accordingly.

    3. LQ*

      I admit I’ve done this, but only when it was in the documentation and I was able to pull it out and point to the line that had the exact question they’d asked. (Weirdly not since I became a manager, I used to have a peer who would do this all the time.) I do think it matters if it is actually in the documentation. (And on stuff that is 30 technical steps that take longer to remember than to click and do.)

    4. AthenaC*

      I’m actually working with someone right now who, when I ask them a question, they immediately ask “what does the guidance say?” …. when I already told them in my email what “the guidance” says and I need help.

      THAT is the kind of “Socratic method” that’s a pain – when you’ve already assembled what you know and you need to know what your superior’s judgment call will be so you don’t have to do a bunch of rework later on.

      1. George*

        I had a question where I was filling out a form. There was a weird case, so I checked the directions. Didn’t resolve it, so I asked the people who I was supposed to ask. They sent me back a copy of the directions I’d already looked at, with the section highlighted. The directions didn’t handle the situation in question (at all). I even told them I had checked them (including the flipping item number!).

        Guess what? I don’t ever ask them for help if I can avoid it. Because their “help me think about it” was THEM not thinking about it.

    5. Jennifer Thneed*

      But did you ever say, “YES I checked the documentation”? (But then, I sometimes need things to be direct to a fault, so this might not apply at all.)

    6. Alexandra Lynch*

      This is what Boyfriend is dealing with.
      He spent a fair amount of time ranting today.

  14. CarrieT*

    Imagine you were taking a painting class, to learn pointillism in the style of Georges Seurat. Now imagine if the instructor tried to make you “figure out” how to use the technique through problem solving, rather than just teaching you the tequnique. That would be so frustrating and ineffective! People learn FIRST through imitation, then once they get comfortable with the technique, they start experimenting and problem solving.

    1. MK*

      Also, Socrates was a philosopher. He was teaching his students to… well, basically he was teaching them to ponder on philosophical questions, where there are no wrong answers and really few answers at all, not how to do a job. It’s not a method that can or should be applied in the workplace. If you want your employees to figure out answers for themselves, give them a list of steps to follow before they come to you.

      1. James*

        “It gave us the Socratic method, which is the best way to learn anything. Well, except juggling chainsaws.” ~Dr. Gregory House.

  15. Lauren*

    Ugh. I had a boss like this. He (yes, he) would say, “I’m teaching you to fish.”
    Like I asked for that.
    This was also the guy that would say, “Do this project/get that data,” and when I’d come back with said plan/data, “Oh, not like that. But this is good, it helps me know what I don’t want.”
    Yeah, he was 100% That Guy.

    LWer, your employees want fast answers so they can go on to the bigger picture/project. If you haven’t noticed an individual asking the same thing twice, please lay off this. Teams are WAY more productive when they don’t actively dislike their manager.

  16. Traffic_Spiral*

    A boss has a different job than a professor. Personal development is all well and good, but their first obligation is to complete the relevant tasks, and your first obligation should be to help them do that. Maybe a few questions are fine, but if it’s taking more than 5 minutes you’re wasting your time and theirs, and you need to cut to the chase. Also, make sure you’re not asking “pop quiz” questions about small stats they don’t know off the top of their heads but have recorded somewhere.

  17. Sleepy*

    If your team has such a high workload, is there any way you can reduce it? That will likely help your team feel good setting aside time to grow their big-picture skills.

    I’ve experienced working in a job with a crushing workload and then being forced to attend “professional development” sessions that were vague and failed to offer anything I could immediately implement (or even implement over the long term, quite frankly). These sessions were not Socratic seminars, but they definitely contributed to my cynicism and burnout.

    Also, Socratic questioning can stimulate thought, but it can also become a game of “Guess the answer that I’m thinking of!” Be careful of how you’re using it.

  18. many bells down*

    My dad did this all the time and sure, it was great for building critical thinking skills in a kid, but… maybe I just want to know if you want this mailer in a catalog envelope or a #10. I’m not writing a dissertation on the history of envelopes.

    1. New Job So Much Better*

      But what if an employee keeps automatically asking for answers instead of researching or re-reading to find the answer? Then you need to ask questions to make them start looking more thoroughly and not firing off an email anytime they don’t see the answer immediately?

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        That seems like a different conversation than the one OP is having, though.

      2. I'm A Little Teapot*

        Then that’s a pattern, and you specifically call it out with the individual employee. Not annoy the entire team and waste time because you don’t want to have a more difficult conversation.

      3. IV*

        No! No, you don’t need to ask them endless series of questions to make them start looking more thoroughly. They aren’t children you need to trick into eating their vegetables. You need to say, “you keep automatically asking me for answers instead of researching or re-reading to find the answer first. I want to empower you to find and figure out answers whenever you can. So here are the places to look and what to consider and of course if you are still confused come ask me.” And if they ask you the same question again, you say “I think we covered this already. Please note this for future reference.”

        1. Mad Harry Crewe*

          DING DING DING. So much this.

          I used to be a supervisor in a call center, and a big part of my job was answering help-desk calls and helping people do their jobs. If I added 15-30 minutes to a help desk call, I was also adding 15 minutes to a customer’s call as well. That would have gotten me a stern talking-to from my manager.

          Our newbies always needed a lot of training and assistance for the first ~4 months or so. I always asked “Do you want me to teach you how, or do you just need it done fast?” – sometimes you’ve been on a stressful call for 45 minutes already, or you’re insane with hunger or super tired. People are not always in the right space to learn, but they still need to get through their job. That offer builds trust and I never gave someone grief about either answer. And sometimes, I wasn’t in the right place to be patient, and I’d say “I’m not very educational right now, I’m going to just handle this. Next time it comes up, I’ll walk you through it.”

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Yeah, when the trainee is near tears that is The Worst Time to play guessing games.

      4. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        Typically, a decent boss has awareness of the situation to know that Fergus is asking you how to open the llama paddock for the hundredth time, rather than read the sign hung over the electronic security system explaining how to operate it, and also knows that Tangerina opens the llama paddock every day without a problem and if she’s asking you it’s because the security system has malfunctioned in some way that she’s never encountered before.

        So you would tell Fergus, “Did you follow the directions on the sign?” and then say to Tangerina, “When you tried to open the paddock, what happened?”

      5. Librarian1*

        Then you tell them to check the manual or the instructions. Or you tell them to research it and get back to you.

      6. Observer*

        Not necessarily. Sometimes the solution is “The same thing I told you last week”, lather rinse repeat. Perhaps with a reminder to TAKE NOTES.

        Sometimes the solution is “Please check the documentation” and / or “That is covered in abc files”

        Sometime the solution is to do training, or actually create documentation and / or processes.

        The right solutions is only rarely to go to questions. And if you need 15 minutes or more on a regular basis, you are doing in wrong.

    2. KoiFeeder*

      My dad did this too! He stopped when I started using those critical thinking skills to smuggle snakes into the house.

  19. OtherSide*

    Oh my goodness, the OP would be an insufferable manager.
    I had a manager who was like this, often because she didn’t know the answer and wanted people to figure it out rather than her helping them use her channels (ie ask upper management, use outside conacts) which gave her better access to information.

    I had a natural connection to some knowlege that we needed (my dad, brother and good friend were in the industry) plus I knew a lot about the subject in our client’s field. While we didn’t need to know every industry nuance because in the end it’s all the same, it really helped them feel confident in us.

    In short, I ended up being the go to for the team. It drove my manager manic. She would often complain that people relied too much on me but fortunately grand boss said as long as I was getting my work done she couldn’t control who my coworkers went to.

  20. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    Ah, I’m glad that Alison called out the “they just have the bachelor degrees” piece. I was with OP up until that point in their letter. For the coaching method itself, I guess it depends on the field – this is pretty close to how I was coached in the past, or how I preferred to be coached when ramping up for a new job, new skill/tech, etc. I’ve got to say that it also depends on the nature and the urgency of the question though. I cannot go through a 30-minute Socratic exercise if I have a client on the phone wanting an answer now. And I don’t need a 30-minute quiz to help me thoughtfully arrive at my answer if my question is “where on Sharepoint do we keep the TPS reports?”

    1. Tsunade*

      Same! This is where OP lost me permanently. There is a time and place for coaching, and it’s not while a client is on the line and you’ve got people trying to answer questions, close deals, etc.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think that OP has a very bizarre idea of what the “coaching” means. I would never confuse the Socratic method with coaching. To me, it’s the total opposite of coaching.

      I have worked with a lot of very practical people they were very work focused. I know if OP tried this technique she would probably get in just one question and the employee would walk away saying, “I asked the boss, but she didn’t know either. She asked ME questions about the problem. I dunno what’s up with the questions. She really doesn’t seem to know this arena at all.”

  21. Abe Froman*

    Would it be possible to link to the original letter in these posts? It’s a small thing (since I can search the title), but I enjoy going back and reading the original comments. Also, there is literally nowhere else on the internet where that statement is true. XD

    1. Ferret*

      The original is the first linked question at the bottom of the post. And I imagine that Alison doesn’t always link them because the point of these articles is to send people to Inc or wherever else she is posting them

      1. Abe Froman*

        Yes, I see that its linked there. But that isn’t always the case, at least in my experience.

        1. Abe Froman*

          That makes sense. I will continue to click over there and come back here for the comments.

        2. Ferret*

          FWIW I normally click through and then come back to read the comments (although I sometimes skip when I remember the letter from before)

          Did you ever get an update on this one? I know the OP got a bit of a pasting in the comments last time, probably due to the visceral irritation that the letter provoked in some people (including me although I didn’t comment back then)

      1. Jennifer Juniper*

        I can’t read the original letter because Inc. is trying to make me subscribe and disable my ad blocker.

  22. Zephy*

    Oh, I would hate working for this person so much. If I’m asking my boss questions about how to do my job, it’s because I’ve exhausted all channels open to me to find the answer myself. Please, just tell me what I need to do, let me be the one to ask clarifying/followup/process questions – if I knew, I wouldn’t be asking you.

    1. Alianora*

      I agree the OP sounds frustrating and isn’t approaching this the right way, but I will say that their employees don’t sound like they’ve exhausted all channels to find the answers themselves. Some of my coworkers do this – they’ll ask questions without trying to figure out the answer themselves first, and it is genuinely frustrating and also not a good use of their time, my time, or their manager’s time.

      I don’t think the OP is necessarily wrong to try to coach them. Granted, they aren’t doing it effectively. But I see where they’re coming from.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        On the other hand, you don’t always want employees to exhaust all channels. Sometimes, the right thing to do is ask the damn question and not spend 4 hours looking for the answer. It also helps if it is acknowledged that you did not look first when it is something you should be able to find on your own. “Joe, I know I could probably find this in the standards, but I have a deadline today. Can you tell me where Button X moved to in the last release of Software Tool?” Joe usually doesn’t mind in that context, esp. if you normally do look before asking him.

      2. Observer*

        I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to try to coach the employees, although I’m not sure that it’s actually necessary – based on what the OP says.

        That’s not the problem though. The problem is that what the OP is doing is not really coaching, and in any case, it’s ineffective, alienating and a total waste of time.

  23. EverybodyHasOne*

    Using one blanket coaching approach is a bad practice. Not everyone responses to the same thing.

    You are not a university anymore and you do not have to use this method. Clearly, it is not working as you would like. Try some else to achieve the same “problem solving” skills you are looking for.

  24. RG2*

    I find this letter very interesting because I have been told I have the opposite problem! I solve my direct reports and colleague’s problems for them, rather than spending more time walking them through/coaching them on how to figure things out. I then end up in situations where the first step is often to just ask me, instead of trying to figure it out themselves first. If I know the answer, I feel very weird coaching because it feels condescending, but I do also think it doesn’t help people grow if they don’t learn. The balance Alison talks about is definitely the key here.

    1. Susie Q*

      So part of my job is to help mentor new hires on our technology. One of the things I will do is I will tell them the answer. And then show them where to find the answer in our vast array of resources. Most of the time, they start trying to find answers there first and then come to me with other questions.

    2. Observer*

      The balance Alison talks about is definitely the key here.

      Balance is the key to SO many things.

  25. Alias*

    If your employees need to do more critical thinking about certain tasks before elevating them to you, that’s literally the feedback that you as a manager should provide to them, and you need to clearly set the expectation that they handle certain things independently before elevating them to you. You shouldn’t walk them through the critical thinking process in real time, every time.

    I struggle with this as well-the paralegal at my small firm, who I de facto manage, is essentially impervious to critical thinking and requires lots of hand holding. What I have typically done when he asks me a question that I feel like he should have just thought harder about, or checked resources we both have access to, is “Here’s the answer. I was able to find it by using X and Y. Please do that for these types of issues going forward, and also remember that Z is a resource as well.” If he comes back to me with the same kind of question, I link him to my previous email or say “We’ve discussed in the past that this is something that you’re expected to look up independently. Please be sure that you’ve done everything possible to do so before I take the time to look at it.”

    If the issue is that he shouldn’t be coming to me at all and does anyway, I will say “I don’t know if we’re totally out of staples. Please check with the office manager for these types of issues.” or “I don’t know why the internet’s down. Please check with our IT guy for these types of issues.”

    OP, you’re not in school anymore and you’re being paid to manage, not to teach. You need to be thinking about what the actual cost is of your time to your company, and to your employees’ productivity.

  26. Give them a fish already*

    I’m not a manager. Our organization used to have lead workers which were one step below management with a bump in pay and I was one of those for years. They’ve ended those positions but I’m still the go-to resource for coworkers.

    So I get a lot of questions, every day and sometimes it feels like all day. I give them the answer and then explain the why behind it. I’ll go on for several paragraphs with links for new coworkers but for the folks I’ve worked with for years, it’s just:

    Explanation of why

  27. Mr. Tyzik*

    I use Socratic method occasionally, but I am a coach. I also meet the person where they are, meaning if I have to answer basic questions, I do, then build upon that foundation. There’s a time and place.

    Quickly checking for an answer is not the right time and place. That’s a time to validate or inform and use as an opportunity for conversation later.

  28. Spearmint*

    I sympathize with both the OP and their frustrated employees. It would be super annoying and a waste of time to have a manager make me engage in long, drawn-out Socratic dialogues rather than giving me the answer. At the same time, I can see how employees being too quick to give up on thinking through problems they encounter and asking for help instead (in the kind of jobs where that’s valuable).

    I think the key is that there’s a vast middle ground between “1/2 hour long Socratic seminars” and “spoon-feeding employees the answers to every little problem”. For example, when the come to you with a problem, you could ask them what they’ve already tried and then give them the answer, but also tell them how you would have gone about finding it. Another would be asking them what they think they should do if they encounter an ambiguous situation, and then after they answer tell them what you think. You can stimulate critical thinking and teach them how to apply those skills to their jobs without going into full professor mode.

    1. Spearmint*

      Ah! I meant to write: “I can see how employees being too quick to give up on thinking through problems they encounter and asking for help instead (in the kind of jobs where that’s valuable) would be frustrating and a waste of your own time as a manager.”

    2. Uranus Wars*

      YES! I wrote a super-long comment below but this is really what I was trying to say. When its the same question, over and over, I get it. But there has to be a better way to come across so it’s effective.

    3. calonkat*

      I work with a state government program that requires organizations wanting funding to input data. There’s lots of information, and so lots of ways things can go wrong. There is a rulebook and a manual, and I send emails with instructions. I get lots of questions that the answer can be easily found by looking, sometimes it’s written right on the page they are entering the information. But I still answer all the questions, because if they knew the answer, they wouldn’t be asking. About half the questions are replies to my instructions that can be answered by copying and pasting the answer from the email they replied to (but clearly didn’t read).
      I generally give them the answer, and tell them where they can look for the information, but I give them the answer first! Once their moment of crisis is over, the vast majority READ the information that’s provided and send apologies. But they didn’t know the answer in the moment, and that is when they needed the answer!

  29. JP*

    You need some self awareness if you’re going to use this technique, otherwise it comes across as condescending and a bit obstructionist. You’ve had multiple employees complain about it, you should take that feedback to heart.

    1. cmcinnyc*

      I think the wall is “don’t have post-grad degrees” and “spoon-feed.” It sounds like OP thinks that the complaints are coming from the dumb and the lazy. If that’s true, you need to hire smarter, more independent employees (not the same as hiring more post-docs, btw). If these are low-skill, low-paid people FRICKING GIVE THEM THE ANSWER SO THEY CAN WORK. If these are busy, time-pressured people FRICKING GIVE THEM THE ANSWER SO THEY CAN WORK. If one or two of them respond to your “let’s take half an hour to unpack your question and put you through an intellectual exercise,” well, enjoy that. But if I was YOUR manager I might question your time use.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I’d question the management skills of a person who insisted on using this technique.

        When I supervised people, I watched to see how they made out with my explanations. If they were still doing things wrong, my default was to tell myself to do a better job explaining. And most times this was the correct answer.

        OP is teaching her people not to have any confidence in themselves nor in their work efforts. She is tearing people down, not building them up.

        OP, if it takes you up to 30 minutes to answer a question, you’re doing it wrong. They have stopped listening to you at the 5 minute mark.

  30. Jennifer Juniper*

    If I have a simple question and my manager spent 30 minutes doing the Socratic thing with me while I was trying to move a time-critical project forward, I’d end up battling panic and confusion. I would try to give the answer the manager wanted to hear while struggling to keep the proper professional decorum and then forget what I was asking in the first place.

    Where others see micromanagement, I see clear directions and safety, so I’m an outlier that way.

  31. BadWolf*

    I can see this if the employees in question are asking the same question over and over again. “Where do we send the teapots?”

    But if an employee is asking “Where do I send Super Special Teapot so it doesn’t fall into Alternate Dimension” and the boss is going on about how we look up teapot addresses and then asks an hour later why Super Special Teapot isn’t in the mail because we’re on a tight schedule…ugh.

    1. Spencer Hastings*

      Yeah. I like to add a yes-or-no question in there to clarify what the issue is, like “Does the super special teapot go to the usual place, or should I send it somewhere else because of the dimensional issues?” But even then, people sometimes respond as though I’d asked the more general question and don’t address the question I actually asked, which can be frustrating.

    2. Mockingjay*

      If employees ask repetitive questions, there’s a process issue at the root. What is preventing your employees from accessing this info in a regular fashion? Why do they keep asking what the next step is?

      There’s always one less-motivated worker who asks rather than seeks, but when the entire team is asking – that’s pointing to a completely different problem (hint: who’s the common denominator?). Give them structure and autonomy, not philosophy, and watch them thrive.

  32. Uranus Wars*

    I am sort of struggling here with how I feel about what this manager is doing. I have a couple of very needy employees, who will either a) open my door while I am on a call without knocking to ask me a question that they can easily look up on our website (yes, the answer is there) or b) hold up an entire project for hours based on something they are waiting for me to answer that is just as easily accessible (think, what year was the company founded, what day are we observing X holiday this year). It can be exhausting, and energy draining and distracting.

    I actually have been coached by my boss to put it back on them “did you check online to see if the company calendar was updated?”. The reason I struggle is because my team member sees this as me being unhelpful and bitchy. Even though I have said “I need you to start finding answers to some of the basic questions on your own. I know you are capable of making a decision and even if you make the wrong one, no one will die. What cannot continue to happen is you miss deadlines to ask me questions where the information is readily available to you.”

    However, when it is something of substance or something I am not sure they have I will usually answer and then either show them where I found the info so they will know next time or I will ask them to schedule a time with me so we can sit down and walk through the process of X and Y. Or hell if I’m in the middle of a meeting and they just barge in and start talking I might just answer and never bring it up again.

    If I am reading right the OP is making Every. Single. Question. a teaching moment. Which seems a bit…extreme?

    Personally, I am still working on how to get her to stop opening my closed door while I am on the phone and just spouting out questions without regard for what I might be doing. And before someone suggests locking the door you should know she just stands out there an knocks until I open it and say “I am in a meeting, can you come back in X?”

    Anyways, long rant to say change your tone or pick one or two key moments and definitely communicate.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      Have you explicitly said to her, “I need you to stop standing outside my door and waiting for me to give you answers, especially if you haven’t yet tried to look those answers up on your own?”

      If you have and she’s still doing it, a) let her stand there and don’t reward the behavior; and b) have a talk with her: “I’ve specifically asked you not to stand outside my door for long periods of time waiting for me. What’s going on?”

      1. Uranus Wars*

        I actually think (sigh, know) there are deeper issues with this employee, but I probably need to revisit this if the behavior continues when we start reporting to the office again. Letting her just stand there is a great idea.

    2. Sarah N*

      I feel like the “Did you check the company calendar” is really different than 15-30 minutes of constant questioning, though! It’s totally reasonable to ask employees to check their resources before bugging others with questions (especially if this is someone who is constantly having similar issues that could be easily resolved). That’s different than a lengthy exchange with multiple questions.

    3. Elbe*

      Give the employee a full training on all of the company resources your team uses. Tell her explicitly that she is to check these resources prior to coming to you with questions.

      Curb the behavior with, “This is on XYZ resource” the first few time she asks. After that, explain that repeatedly asking questions that she has the answers to is a performance issue and that continuing to do so will be part of her next performance review/assessment/1:1, etc.

    4. Alias*

      I never phrase these types of things as questions. I always say “Please check X Y Z resources before coming to me with these types of questions. If you don’t know how to use X in this way to find the answer, let me know and we’ll go over it.”

      As far as the meetings go, I always say “I’m on a call for X more minutes, thanks” or “I’ll be free in an hour if you want to touch base after my call.”

      There are people out there who truly are oblivious enough to treat their manager as if their manager is present to make *their* lives easier. These people are impervious to subtext. You’re going to have to say “You should check the calendar before you ask me questions like that” because they are not picking up that subtext when you say “Did you check the calendar?” If you don’t start making statements and giving directions, your needy employees are going to continue to treat you the way they always have.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Adding, “I need you to write down these answers so you are not asking the same questions over and over. I am not here to do the job for you. I am here to assist you when you encounter an unfamiliar situation.”

      hmm. Probably could say it nicer, but that is the gist of it.

    6. Uranus Wars*

      Lots of good advice here that I didn’t expect – thank you all so much for chiming in with some good takeaways. I really do love this site.

  33. bananab*

    This is a few too many layers beyond “what happened when you tried X” and sounds super tedious.

  34. AdAgencyChick*

    Ugh, the guessing game manager.

    If you’re worried that your direct reports will get in the habit of asking you things they should be trying to figure out themselves, there are ways to do that without applying the Socratic method, which is lovely in school (where the purpose is to learn) but hella annoying at work (where the purpose is to get sh*t done). You can ask your direct reports, “what have you tried before coming to me?” and if the answer is “nothing,” you can say “check the documentation first and come back to me only if you can’t figure it out that way.” You can tell them the answer, and say, “here’s how I’d like you to attack this kind of problem the next time it shows up.” Etc.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      OMG, YES!
      So simple yet so hard for some people to do.
      When I started my current job, my boss gave me a list of telephone contacts, a stack of reference books and links on the computer. Little by little, we worked through all of it so I learned how to find answers. She did actually give me the answers to the parts she was sure of but I would have to touch base elsewhere if she was not certain.

      Added wrinkle, some times the answer is available. But the wording seems tricky and ambiguous. I print out or copy what I have found and let the boss review the material. My boss would look things over and arrive at her conclusion of how we should proceed.

  35. RussianInTexas*

    OMG this sounds so ridiculously annoying.
    I am not your student. And no, I don’t have a post-grad schooling.
    Just tell me where the file is, please.

  36. Friday afternoon fever*

    Depends on the question- sometimes it’s “coaching,” sometimes it’s infantilizing. If your employee comes to you a lot with questions they should have the answer to, address that with them.

  37. Doctor Prepper*

    At least in this situation the manager helps out with getting to the answer or “just gives the answer already.”
    When I was in medical school and all through residency training you learned really quick NEVER to ask a question that was not something like “do you want me to dose it at one mg or two mg?” because anything else would get the response of “That’s a GOOD question! Why don’t you research it and give us all a 15 minute presentation on the answer tomorrow during rounds!” Coming back with a “I could not find it” or just not doing it at all was potentially career-ending. And this is the era of 36 hour stints on call and the like.
    These same jerks would also just keep rapid-firing you with questions until you finally got one wrong, then berate and abuse you for the next 5 minutes about how stupid you were.

    Give me Socratic any day.

    1. Choggy*

      I hope all my doctors feel the same way you do. While not the the medical field, I am in a field (IT) where there are multiple ways to do the same thing, depending on the circumstance, available resources, etc. I feel if you do not have critical thinking and analysis skills, you should not be in this field. I work with someone who, on a daily basis, will ask a question they should a) already know the answer to, or b) should be able to use the many online and documented resources to find it. He prefers to ask and get an answer, because he’s completely lazy. This type of person I will always ask what information has he gathered, has he checked the documentation, etc. You what he then does? Go goes to someone ELSE for the answer. I think I’ve trained him well not to ask me much any more so that’s a win for me!

    2. Not So NewReader*

      That’s… uh… pretty disturbing to know that medical students are treated this way. Our medical schools are the foundation of our medical care system. And this is how the students are being taught????

  38. The one who wears too much black*

    Letting someone repeatedly stumble when you know they need help and came to you for that help is a great way to get a reputation of being hard to work with. I hope you and your employees find more compatible ways of giving and receiving feedback because I chose to leave a job in the past since I felt condescended to when my manager did this. Maybe your company culture and training expectations for new/newer associates are in line with your “socratic approach”, but it’s worth considering how you’re coming across in that process.

    A recurring coaching session 1x/week or 2x/month with a hard stop of 30min might be a good way to shift items that have on going training needs away from issues that really do just need a quick response. You get to decide what needs on going training and can tell your associate, “this is a great thing to bring to our recurring coaching call. For now, do X.”

    1. Nita*

      This. The training should be saved for training time. OP’s main (entire?) job is to manage, and that includes assisting employees that come to them with questions. Also, OP runs the risk of making their employees feel like they have to make every judgment call on their own. I don’t know about OP’s industry, but in my line of work that can lead to some expensive and possibly dangerous mistakes, upset clients, and potentially regulatory violations. Maybe being the go-to person for answers is not so bad in comparison.

      I do understand the frustration of being bombarded with silly questions that you feel people “should” know the answer to, but if this is a recurring thing, maybe it’s time for a training meeting.

    2. Paulina*

      That’s a very good point and suggestion, having a separate training meeting. The way the letter describes things, it sounds like any question might potentially turn into “training”, which would be very derailing to the report who’s asking (and presumably is in the middle of trying to get something done).

  39. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Its work, it’s not school. I don’t need a teacher, I need a manager. This kind of waste of time would get us really looking at if someone was fit to be a manager, to be honest with you. That’s not a constructive use of everyone’s time, yours included.

    1. James*

      It depends. I mean, if you’re trying to train the employee to take on more responsibility it may be worth the investment–but everyone involved needs to be clear that that’s what’s happening. And the manager needs to be comfortable offloading responsibility (including decision-making) to the person in question. And it sounds like the OP would like to be that type of manager, the one that gets everyone on their team to grow. Unfortunately, some people don’t like to grow; they’re happy where they are. And a manager needs to understand that that’s not bad.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        There are many other more efficient ways to accomplish this without playing guessing games.
        Most people want to be competent at their jobs. I started by assuming everyone wants to be competent. People go toward what we think of them. And we show them what we think of them.

        The Socrates Juniors of the world think very poorly of their employees and it shows. I am not surprised that OP thinks her staff is not doing that well. She thinks that they do not think critically. This is not what is happening at all. They think that she holds their pay check. If they do not please her they will lose their paycheck (job). So instead of understanding that this food on people’s tables, OP has turned the work place in to a large guessing game. Not much different than a tv show. If the people guess right they get their job for one more day.

        People are totally dependent on their bosses to convey what the company expects of them in terms of behaviors/habits and in terms of standards for the product or service. Don’t make me guess what you want. If all the lollipop sticks need to be 3.75 inches just say so. That is fine, I will stand on my head to get that for you. Don’t turn it into a half hour conversation where I have to guess how long the lollipop sticks should be because you want me to think critically. I do think critically, I am very critical of bosses who operate this way.

        Unfortunately, all I can think of is a dog being asked to beg for doggie treats. If I beg hard enough maybe eventually the boss will tell me how long the lollipop sticks should be.

        One of the many things a boss does is show an employee what they need to do to keep their jobs and be in good standing. Playing guessing games is a total fail on the boss’ part.
        There are many ways of getting people on track. This is not one of them.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        There are people who simply cannot learn either, so you’re pushing at people to “grow” who are at full capacity already. Making them frustrated and feeling bullied to “Do better”, yet they’re doing just fine.

        This has to be something that everyone is on the same page for, you can’t make the decision as a manager for an employee to push them and try to develop them.

        And the manager has to be someone who is actually able to off load that responsibility. They have to be able to also give people more money as well. Which isn’t always the case. Lots of variables here!

  40. Miss Muffet*

    You have to be able to gauge when it’s appropriate, for sure. Sometimes a question just needs an answer. That being said, if you’re constantly answering the same questions, or similar ones, that show that someone isn’t thinking contextually about things, or retaining info, this kind of coaching can help. After initial training with someone on my team, I used a “Three Before Me” approach, where I’d expect the teammate to have checked three relevant places before coming to me with a question (and telling me which places they checked – requirements, SOPs, shared drive, prior versions of this kind of work, whatever).

    This does a couple of things – a lot of the time, they find the answer. If not, it helps you as a boss know if they are just checking the wrong places (coaching moment!), or if those are the right places and the answer isn’t available there. If that’s the case — why? Is it really a super one-off thing (which it totally can be!) or maybe your requirements or SOPs or whatever actually need to be updated!

  41. ElenaA*

    Managing is difficult and it takes time to learn to do that right. Coaching is difficult and a whole another skill. I dont know if this applies, but I would think that as a new manager you would need time to really Ace the managing skills before you take into learning something new. Good luck with your team and finding your style as a manager.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think the main thing to remember in management is that it’s all about what works for your team, at the moment, in the moment.

      So right now, as a new manager, if you’re getting feedback that your style is not working for your crew. You take their feedback and see how you can tweak it, instead of defending your position.

      Unless they’re asking to not be managed at all or something absurd, you should be willing to adjust in some fashion. Yes in the end, the team has to fall in line with the manager’s desires for them but it’s so much easier as a manager to not be set in your own firm mindset. That’s not what’s best for business.

      There are things you don’t waiver from. Performance being key, general attitude and how easily they work with others is another. But this kind of technique stuff, getting stuck up on “Well they don’t like that I try to teach them instead of giving them the answer right away.” is not going to do well for business.

      Unless your point is to push these people out and hire people who do like your management style, which I don’t usually recommend because you’re putting your desire to do things your preferred way despite these folks being seemingly good at their jobs. Asking questions doesn’t mean someone is bad at their job.

      You get paid more to retain more information and skills than the others who report to you in the end. There’s a balance to strike up. They can’t only depend on you but you can’t treat them like children either. They’re not your children, they’re adults who require a manager for a reason…

      1. Not So NewReader*

        All of this.

        OP, let’s roll with this for a moment. If you want to be a teacher then one of the key things you need to know is that people all have different styles of learning. I have a very talented friend who can do many types of work. He is also very, very visual as in he covers a lot of ground scary fast by looking at a picture of the end item. I can try using words to tell him and it might take 15-20 minutes. If I can show him a picture it takes oh maybe 2 minutes. It’s up to me to put my friend in the best spot so he can excel at the job I need help with. He wants to feel successful and I want a nice completed item. It’s in my own best interest to defer to HIS learning style preference and forsake my own preferences. As it stands now, you are saying, “Here is my style of learning and you must learn in the same manner that I learn.” This is so far removed from what managers do.

        It is in your best interest to figure out how each individual working for you absorbs new information and use their preferred method as often as possible. Tip: The number of individuals who respond well to the Socratic method will be about 1 for every million employees you have.

        Right now you have a huge breach of trust going on. Your people cannot ask you questions without you humiliating them and shaming them. They feel degraded and belittled. You will have to go a ways before trust is rebuilt. I would not be surprised to find out you had to leave this job because too much was broken here.

  42. I'm just here for the cats*

    I’ve had a manager do similar things before and it’s so frustrating. I would literally have to spend 5-10 minutes explaining everything I did looking for an answer. Most the time i still wouldn’t get what I needed.
    Yes I looked at x,.and did y that’s standard procedure. Just help me figure this out already because I’ve got a customer waiting the last 10 minutes!

  43. Dagny*

    For heaven’s sake, just explain your thinking and give them context with the answer. If the question from supply chain is about what material is used to weld a new type of teapot, just tell them that one type of weld is used on ceramic teapots, a different type is used on silver teapots, and handmade teapots don’t have welds. Then tell them who else on the team would be the product specialist for this and can answer is more detail.

  44. Sneaky Ninja for this one*

    I’m generally not a “give them the answer” type manager, either. It’s my job to know their train of thought so I know if they are missing something fundamental to their job or just having a brain cramp moment. I need my team to be able to relate A to B so the next time a similar situation comes up, they can work it out.

    If someone is newer, I will give them the answer, with an explanation. We need to do X because of Y, and if we don’t we could lose money/get sued/lose our contract, etc. Or, answer and point them in the right direction. “can I have Monday off?” “Did you check the team calendar, is anyone else off? It’s on Teams.”

  45. Majnoona*

    I’m a professor and even I don’t do that. Sure, in a classroom, where lots of people puzzle something out that works well – it’s not wasting their time because that’s what they are there for and the focus isn’t all on one person’s supposed limitations. And sometimes I’ll just give a straight answer, maybe adding – remember, this is is kind of like what we were talking about a couple weeks ago when the Saudis invaded Yemen.

  46. Rebecca*

    Reading this letter made me tired. If I’m asking my manager a question, that’s a big deal – I know my job, I know how to find information, and if I’ve run into something so completely new that I have to ask someone, I just need an answer. I don’t need a 30 minute how to think seminar!

    It’s one thing if Fergus comes to you every day, multiple times per day, and asks redundant questions – that’s a training issue and you need to get to why he’s not finding the answers he needs in the training docs, from coworkers, etc. – but if Wakeen asks you one question every 6 months, just answer him and be done with it.

  47. Clorinda*

    There’s the Socratic method and then there’s Twenty Questions. The Socratic method is appropriate sometimes–if this is something the person should already know how to do or find out, if they regularly ask for help before trying anything else, if their position requires some independence–but Twenty Questions, never.

  48. Will's Mom*

    I had a boss like that back in the day. I HATED it at first, but after about 6 months, I was the one answering questions, plus I was able to take the skills I learned from her to my subsequent jobs. That experience flexed my reasoning muscles so much that it became second nature. I wish more of my bosses would do that.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s great this worked for you but honesty, not everyone learns like you do. Not everyone will gain skills and strength from this method. Some people are going to be in their same job forever, they don’t have the same capacity.

      Generally speaking, constantly frustrated employees are not usually productive employees.

      I learned from the “drop you into the ocean and make you swim” management. It was fantastic for me, I’m who I am for it. And yet, everyone else who was in my position ran away because they don’t like the style. See, everyone has their own preferred style for their managers.

      1. Dagny*

        And the manager is getting feedback that this is problematic for a number of employees. At that point, it has likely gone far beyond “mildly annoying.”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      There are a certain few people who are actually good at this method. Most are not. You must have had one of the good ones. Usually the questions are ridiculously off base and not connected to the actual concern.

      I had a boss ask me all kinds of questions. What a pain. Anyway, I could not figure out if she was just asking or if she did not know. After a bit, I realized she did not know the answers I needed. She would say things such as she would never be my boss. People came to me not her, they called her questions “head games” and they just wanted a straight answer. Finally she decided that I was taking her job away from her. I wanted to say that in order for it to be her job, she would have to actually be doing the job. The truth was I did not care about getting her job. I just wanted to get the work done well, unfortunately because I cared about the work she thought I wanted her job. (This place was kind of twisted. If you completed something and completed it on time, people would get mad at you for being successful.)

  49. Ginger*

    And this is how grad school gets a bad rap (speaking as a holder of an MBA, some folks act like it gives them divine powers).

    This is the real world, not school. Who has 30 min (?!?!) to suss out an answer?? Good lord, OP, that is painful to read. It will not win you an popularity contests but more importantly, your team is wasting time and getting frustrated. It sounds like you’ve heard the feedback to cut it out, time for some self reflection.

  50. WantonSeedStitch*

    When I find that people are coming to me with questions that they probably could figure out the answers to by themselves, with their existing background, I want to see them grow in their confidence, and trust their judgment. I have brought this up with some people at their review or in professional development conversations, and framed it as, “When you come to me with questions, try to think of a possible answer or two and present those to me. If it’s something where you really don’t have the tools to answer the question, that’s fine, but if you’re asking me ‘how do I handle X request?’ chances are you can come up with a few possible solutions.”

    I do this because a former manager once said this to me, and it really got me to jump ahead in my development. I started paying more attention to policies, precedents, and how decisions could affect people beyond myself. I think that if she hadn’t done that, I might never have had the confidence to take on a management role.

    But I also don’t think that when a person is coming to me with a question is really the time to push them to do this. If someone comes to me and says, “client X asked me for Y–should I provide that?” I’m just going to give them an answer and explain my reasoning so they can understand why I made that decision. That way, hopefully, the next time a client asks them for Y, they might not need to ask. And of course, I expect newer employees to ask a lot of questions and just need straight answers. But with more seasoned folks, I like to see them take some initiative and show me how they’d attack a problem.

  51. MassMatt*

    I really disliked a lot of the tone and language of the LW’s question, not just the “I went to grad school, and they only have bachelor’s degrees” comment. Outside academia, most people really don’t care much about degrees, they care about ability, performance, and how easy someone is to work with.

    “Plus, they are uncomfortable with me knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of me.” –This tells me a lot. Their fear is probably well-founded, as you are probably belittling them for what they don’t know. Repeatedly. For long periods of time (15-30 minutes!). No one likes being made to feel stupid. No one likes people who make them feel stupid.

    Add this to your comments about “spoon-feeding” and “they don’t have to think” and you are painting a picture of yourself as someone who has likely really failed to make the transition from academia to the world of business.

    Developing/coaching employees always has to be balanced with the goal of getting work done. I doubt your employees are learning/developing much from your “dialogue” sessions, except how to avoid asking you something next time and developing ways to work around you. In the meanwhile, work is not getting done. If you want employees to develop skills, the Socratic method is not a very effective way to do it for most people most of the time.

    And remind me, what happened to Socrates?

    1. bookartist*

      We can’t really know, but as the story goes, he killed himself semi-publicly in response to his enemies’ political efforts to destroy his work and legacy. If your point is the LW is so annoying that he will be hounded to suicide, that is one screwed-up point to make.

      1. James*

        He was tried and put to death by a court of law–at least according to every document we have on the topic. To describe that as “hounded to suicide” is wrong. Sure, they didn’t force the poison down his throat-but that doesn’t make any difference, since if Socrates had resisted they’d have killed him in a more direct manner (the ancient world was not known for its tolerance or gentleness).

      2. MassMatt*

        My point is that it did not end well for Socrates and probably won’t end well for the LW, but this just points out the weakness of the method, people can draw all sorts of conclusions when you make them guess the answer.

        The LW is earning a reputation as someone who is difficult to work with and wastes the time of her reports instead of simply answering their questions when there’s lots of work to do. She also seems to have contempt for her more popular colleague for “spoon feeding” the staff so they “don’t have to think”.

        And James is correct, Socrates was executed after being convicted of corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. The means of execution was drinking hemlock but it was not suicide as he had no choice in the matter. Or maybe more accurately, the alternative was probably a much nastier method of execution.

    2. SciDiver*

      “Plus, they are uncomfortable with me knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of me”.

      This jumped out at me immediately. It’s normal for managers to know more than some of their reports on various topics, and no workplace is error-free, but this method of managing feels much more like a lecture hall than a workplace. I’d bet that after a few of these sessions, OP’s reports have tried to find the answer themselves to avoid the critical thinking coaching session, making it even more uncomfortable when they eventually have to ask their boss after they’ve already tried solving it themselves.

      Even if they are just coming directly to you with questions, the long socratic sessions it can end up feeling like the answer should be obvious and taking 30 minutes to extract an answer would absolutely make people feel embarrassed and uncomfortable bringing questions to you in the future.

      1. willow for now*

        Yes. And why would you WANT to make people feel uncomfortable? Unless you’re just mean.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, I was totally uncomfortable with those statements, also.
      Good point about academia vs business. It’s two different mindsets and approaches.

      In my mind, a good teacher can be proved out because the students’ abilities grow beyond the teacher’s abilities. (Not all the time and not every student.) If you are doing a good job teaching/training you can tell, OP, because your employees are blowing your mind with their outputs/creativity/resourcefulness/whatever. You may even catch yourself thinking that your crew had grown out beyond you. Bosses lay the foundation for that growth to happen.
      If you are not seeing growth it’s up to you to question everything you are doing and make steady changes until you see positive things happening.

  52. A Social Worker*

    As Alison said, you need to let them know what you are doing and why. I use your method for some team members but I have already spoken with them about the fact that they need to do more problem solving/critical thinking on their own before coming to me. If it’s just a quick logistical question, I give them the answer, but if it is a clinical/ethical issue I would like them to think it over before coming to me (but of course come to me if it is sticky!). It helps that the person who asks the most questions on my team is someone I am supervising toward their independent license, so it is a clinical supervision issue wherein I need to feel comfortable signing off on them being an independent practitioner at the end of our supervision, and they are aware that I am shaping them to be more independent in this way.

  53. AnotherAlison*

    I find this entertaining because I’m not very patient. I don’t think I’ve ever used this with team members, and I don’t think many managers or supervisors have used it with me, at least not so blatantly. After working with my high schooler on school work all quarter, I did use this initially, but a couple math problems in, I’m just like, “This factors into -1, 9 and 41, take the square root of 9 and and move it outside the radical with the “i”. . .there’s your answer.” (Odds are low he will remember how to do this by August, and none of this quarter counts towards his grade.) I can’t imagine sitting with a junior employee and expecting them to work through a problem real-time. OTOH, I do like people to have a guess at the answer–“I plan on using Tool 1 instead of Tool 2 for this one for reasons xyz, does that make sense?” is better for me than “Should I use Tool 1 or 2?” even if the answer is ultimately Tool 1. Occasionally, I do think someone is trying to appear to be using the Socratic approach when the question is actually not something they’re familiar with.

  54. Kesnit*

    I am glad I am not the only person frustrated by the Socratic method. My current boss uses it all the time. There are times when it is helpful (and I do learn things), but most of the time it is frustrating and gets on my nerves. (When I first saw the headline, I though my boss had sent in this letter because I told him once how frustrating it is.*) I will go to one of the other senior people before my boss for the very reasons listed in the OP.

    *My opinion of his method ended up as a line in my next annual evaluation…

  55. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

    Is your objective to get the job done or is it to teach your employees? I’ve seen people get criticized for not meeting their objectives, and then when they ask their manager questions in order to meet their objectives, their manager said “well, I’m not going to spoon-feed it to you.” It didn’t look like a productive situation at all. The employees were being paid for their results, not to figure out what their manager wouldn’t tell them. (But then again maybe that manager just didn’t know the answer to the question and didn’t want to admit it).

    I agree that you need to pick and choose when it’s appropriate to help the employee think through the question at hand, and when to just answer the question so they can move forward with their work.

  56. Ms.Vader*

    If you did a Bachelors degree and didn’t understand critical thinking by the end of it, I’d question the value of that education. One doesn’t need a PhD to get that concept. I’m wondering if the subordinates are getting a vibe that the OP thinks they are better than them and it’s coming across as patronizing instead of helpful. That’s certainly the tone I read this.

    1. Argh!*

      It could also be that they worry about being blamed & shamed for making a mistake and want LW to be the target of someone else’s bad temper. There are many possible reasons for this.

  57. 7310*

    Hey, I’m having a brain fart-somebody please help me get past it…so I can get back to work instead of spinning my wheels (and mixing metaphors)

    1. Anna Maus*

      Right? Or, “I’ve tried xyz and I’m frustrated as hell and didn’t want to ask you so can we get this over with quickly now please?”

  58. Kierson*

    I once had a manager do this with her reports, but only when they continued to come to her with the same questions. She’d provide them the answers the first few times, but repeated visits to her office inquiring the same information highlighted an issue. So she’d pose the question back to them:

    Associate: Hey, Boss, do you think I should consult the Teapot SOP binder before conducting the Teapot Bathing Protocol?
    Boss: Hmm, possibly. What do you think you should do?

    If they became frustrated, she would gently remind them about the other times they asked the same question and the route they ended up taking. This not only jogged their memory but decreased the repetitive questions.

  59. hbc*

    I think the happy medium is usually to tell them the answer and why you came to it. It takes maybe a minute longer than the straight answer in most cases, and they can pick up on your knowledge and thought processes by osmosis rather than trying to follow the question breadcrumb trail. That’s before you get to the fact that a lot of people aren’t exactly forming long-term memories when put on the spot with questioning like this.

  60. Pam*

    As an actual college professor, the Socratic method is not even necessarily an effective way of teaching; certainly not for all students. In a modern classroom, you adapt to the different kinds of learners if you want to be effective. A non-native speaker, a recent immigrant, a non-neurotypical student, a student with a background of trauma, even just an introverted kid will likely respond poorly to relentless questioning. It’s also a HUGE time suck. I don’t know what school was like for the LW, but I’ve taught college for 20 years, and it is not an environment where you stand in a lecture hall and shape young minds with your penetrating questions; it’s an environment where you work hard to cover all the material while adapting in real time to the varying needs of students. I suppose some old school types with tenure my take the luxurious, musing-in-a-tweed-jacket approach, but I doubt their kids are learning much.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I had one professor who was an absolute master of it, and the rest either weren’t very good at it or didn’t really try (probably because they knew better). The one guy was a freaking magician, though.

  61. A witty name here*

    In my experience, when managers do this, it is a actually a tedious game of “guess the answer I already thought of”. They are not going to hear alternative perspectives, and won’t let you stop till you get to the one they have already got. So tedious – if there’s something specific you want, tell me, explain why it’s the only acceptable solution and let’s move on. On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in what I can come up with, give me some space and time to do that, don’t hover over me with hints as to the direction you want.

    1. Nacho*

      Agreed. My old manager did it to me, and it got really tiring really quickly when I would keep giving, IMO, decent answers to his questions, and he’d keep telling me to guess again because they weren’t the ones he thought of.

      1. willow for now*

        And chances are, if you did happen to hit on his answer, he would just change the answer he wanted, and – how would you know? it’s just so power-trippy

  62. somebody blonde*

    I’m the trainer for my team, and I think if you’re trying to build problem-solving skills, you should try something in between full Socratic method and always just giving the answer. When someone asks me a question about something where I think they should know the answer based on past conversations, I ask them what they know about the problem already and try to drill down on the exact point of misunderstanding. Once we get there, I clarify the point they need while also telling them what to connect it to that they definitely understand already. It will sound like “This situation is basically like x situation that we talked about last week, with y difference.” This helps them think about the connection without spending 30 minutes to find the solution.

  63. Bella*

    I was maybe willing to give the benefit of a doubt until I got to ” None of my team members have post-grad schooling, just bachelors degrees. …Maybe I should have just become a professor!”

    After that, it’s easier to go back and see that the letter has a bit of an elitist/patronizing tinge to it. I just…. don’t know….. how to make them THINK! They are simply sad drone bees!!!” Hm, k.

    I co-sign everyone else’s reply of anything more than a handful of minutes being a long-winded explanation.

    It’s also possible this is a sign of other issues you’re ignoring by being over-focused on “they aren’t thinking!!!!” I’ve experienced this at workplaces where training is scattered and the answer to question A is in document 1, question B is in document 2, question C is with some separate binder completely, etc. In this case, yes, you could over and over teach people to follow *your* scattered approach, or you could try to solve the scatter instead.

  64. KoiFeeder*

    I mean, I am currently in grad school, and when I tell someone that there’s an issue with the leg motion in the otter village, the question is “have you tried t-posing the otters” and not “well, why do you think there’s an issue?” The latter definite would come across as the professor either mistrusting me or thinking I’m kind of stupid- if my supervisor was doing the latter, I’d definitely be irritated that they simultaneously hired me and thought I was untrustworthy and/or stupid.

    1. KoiFeeder*

      (I had not, in fact, t-posed the otters. Still didn’t fix everything, but it was an improvement!)

  65. Argh!*

    There are many reasons why someone wouldn’t know what to do, and not having thought through the problem or not having had training in that kind of thinking are only two possibilities. It’s also possible that they worry about being wrong, that they don’t have the experience with this kind of thing to truly think it through, that they didn’t receive adequate training, that the environment doesn’t have visual clues (like pop-ups on a website) for one problem but has them for other situations, etc.

    So since LW likes critical thinking, perhaps turning it on each type of problem as a management issue for LW to think through — what was at the root of someone not knowing the answer?

    There are also a lot of people who just plain don’t like thinking, and they don’t want to be decision makers, or may even have difficulty due to something like ADHD. LW should consider this, too.

    If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.

  66. Sarah N*

    I just want to say that I *AM* a professor and would still be driven insane by this approach if my manager (that is, my department chair or dean) did this to me. If your employees are asking too many questions or need to work on critical thinking skills or checking specific resources before they talk to you about an issue or whatever, work on them with those things directly. But wasting HALF AN HOUR of everyone’s time every single time someone has a question is beyond and is mostly going to annoy people, not teach them to have better critical thinking skills. Socratic questioning can be really useful IN THE CLASSROOM or when working through a problem with students in office hours or something. But if I, like, run into a student in the hallway and they ask where a particular building is, I’m going to give them an answer, not ask them whether they thought to look for a map.

  67. Nacho*

    My last manager did this to me, and I absolutely hated it. I consistently dreamed of reaching over the table and strangling him while shouting “Just tell me the answer you want me to fucking give you! You obviously know it, so stop wasting my time and let me get on with my life!”

    Needless to say, what works in an academic setting doesn’t necessarily work well in an office setting OP, and you should take your team’s requests to heart and stop it ASAP.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It’s an AAM repost but also remember, many people send their letters to other advice columns. So you could have read it many places :)

  68. Rich*

    I see two main issues — priorities and perception. It sounds like there’s a mismatch in both on both sides of the conversation.

    I’m exaggerating for effect, but…
    Employee: “Where can I find more PostIt notes?”
    Manager: “Hmm” “In general, what’s the taxonomy of that sort of paper good in an office setting?”
    Manager: “I was going for ‘Office Supplies’! Does that narrow it down?”

    Questions are often simple and direct, reflecting either a lack of information or a failure of recollection. Both of those can be perfectly reasonable conditions for an employee who is still a strong performer. Maybe they do a task infrequently. Maybe there’s some ambiguity about whether a situation requires X or Y. Maybe a project has generally been trending in a teapot direction, and takes an unplanned French press turn.

    Is your goal as a manager to “improve their critical thinking skills” (and, depending on the context of the questions, there’s a different discussion which could be had around that), or making sure they have the resources they need to be effective in their jobs.

    Un-Socratic Hint: Managers should primarily pay attention to whether their employees have what’s needed to be effective at their jobs.

    Hard-earned improvements in critical thinking are often more of an ambient or secondary benefit rather than a concrete benefit. Do they have professional objectives on critical thinking-based self reliance, or on successful project completion? If it’s the latter, your focus on the former shows a mismatch in priorities between your management behavior and the management objectives you actually give your employees.

    Confusion in priorities is intensely frustrating for employees. Worse is a manager who seems to be investing (and forcing investment) in one set of priorities, but expecting performance in a separate one. And you may see them as linked because linking them is a good way for YOU to do that work. But unless you’re measuring and rewarding them on doing the work YOUR way rather than _A_ way that produces results, you’re confusing their priorities with your personal preferences.

    And that’s where perception comes in. If my boss thought I needed a 30 minute coaching session every time I approached them with a question, I would view these as punitive — because I wouldn’t see a connection to my performance, I would see my boss feeling a need to take me away from my actual work to teach me the error of my ways in asking a question.

    And it has the potential to turn a simple question into a guessing game.

    There’s a time and a place where this method is appropriate. A critical thing to consider is that Socrates didn’t use this method in a university setting (and yes, I do understand the actual history around The Republic), he used it in discussion to solve problems to which he didn’t yet have the answer. It was a method of discovery for both parties. In workplace settings where you’re actually solving a problem together, mutual questioning of premises, underlying assumptions, and implications is a brilliant way to solve problems.

    But when work needs to get done, you know the answer, and they don’t? A maximum of two Socratic minutes is the limit. That’s one leading question to see if you jog their memory. And that’s only if you see that it’s valuable to jog their memory rather than just refer to yours and answer the question.

    1. Rich*

      Oh, that’s a shame. I got too cute in formatting my dialog — the employee rage quite and stormed off

  69. AthenaC*

    Well …

    Reading this and some of the commentary from the original post (but I won’t pretend I did an exhaustive read), my initial reactions are:

    – I’ll admit that I myself get annoyed when I ALREADY HAVE done everything I know how to do to get an answer, and I get nothing but questions back. If I’m coming to you, it’s because I need an answer, having exhausted my resources.
    – That being said, the reason I became resourceful is BECAUSE of managers like the OP who helped teach me how to be resourceful.
    – Unfortunately, learning is uncomfortable and far too many people don’t like being forced to do it, so OF COURSE they are going to prefer the people that are “easier” on them. To the extent that’s true, work isn’t a popularity contest. You need to be effective, and often times the best way to do that (in the long run, of course) is to increase the effectiveness of your subordinates.
    – I’ll admit I’m a little grumpy today because I’m kinda over my team members peppering me with questions that they should be able to take care of themselves. Look, I get that everyone’s busy, but if the 10 people who report to me are all busy, do they really think I’m any less busy and can drop everything to play whack-a-mole with THEIR questions? (I’m willing to bet the OP is in a similar spot)

    So it looks like I’m in the minority, but generally speaking I want to say “Carry on” to the OP, and “TFB” to the OP’s complainer-pants subordinates.

    But I could be wrong.

    1. STEMprof*

      If they should be able to answer the question themself, shouldn’t that be your answer to them? Rather than asking them 5 million questions?
      Direct report: What is the end date on the teapot glazing contract?
      Me: Please check the contract.
      And if it becomes a pattern, have a big picture conversation with them about the pattern.

      1. AthenaC*

        It sounds like from the OP’s question that her team members CAN answer the question themselves … they just choose not to. Particularly since there are other managers that enable them. If it’s really taking them 15 – 30 minutes to work their way to the answer, sounds like they need this mental exercise.

    2. Khatul Madame*

      I am with you, AthenaC!
      In my field (consulting) the ability to do independent research and problem-solving is critical, so I get very frustrated by people who come to me with factual questions not having looked for them anywhere. I am often tempted to say “LMGIFY”, but so far have been able to refrain.
      One way I usually deal with this is to delay answering these types of questions in the hope that by the time I am free the person will have found Google. Another is to tell the team that if they have a question I prefer them to try finding the answer/solution independently and only come to me if they don’t find anything or cannot choose between multiple options of comparable quality.
      If a question is more of a problem-solving type, I prefer them to come to me with at least one solution and explanation why they need me to weigh in.
      Is it working? Not as often as I’d like it to. Every year I get a question like “Do we have Presidents Day off?” and sit on my hands until I get over the urge of writing back “The holidays observed by our employer are in the handbook located at THISURL. I have sent out the information about company holidays and the location of the handbook 5 (five) times in the past 2 years you’ve been working for me. You should look in either your email or on the company intranet before taking up my valuable time with this nonsense. I am not your mother.”

      1. AthenaC*

        We’re in very similar fields – I’m in public accounting. Primarily auditing, but occasionally a side dish of consulting thrown in. The goal is to train people so they don’t need you anymore (fly, little bird!) except for judgment calls that could cause significant rework if done incorrectly.

        Just recently I was spread WAY too thin, and I warned my teams this and let them know that in general I’m happy to help but I needed them to step up and own their work and just get it done. Make judgment calls, figure it out, and I’ll talk them through review comments on the back end (once I put out all my fires).

        Guess what happened? IM’s with questions sat unanswered for hours (I literally couldn’t get to them), and then when I followed up to ask “What have you gotten through today?” Answer: “Well, I was waiting for you ….” *facepalm*

  70. Dust Bunny*

    This is a repost, but one of the commentors on the original post pointed out that, when it became clear this wasn’t working, the LW . . . wrote to Allison, who is known for clear, direct, answers. So the LW didn’t even follow his/her own advice–s/he went to somebody who wouldn’t try to lead her/him to the answer by a series of questions.

    Because it’s not an effective way to convey information. I’ve worked with some lazy people but never anyone so lazy they couldn’t be bothered to answer basic questions on their own; it’s always more work to bother your manager than to just do it yourself. Invariably, either they did not have the information they needed to complete a task; did not have the authority to complete the task without a manager’s input; or had been trained through bad management that they didn’t dare make a move on their own (learned helplessness). None of those can be remedied through this method. People will just avoid you to avoid wasting more time being questioned about things they would have handled themselves already if they could.

  71. gmg22*

    “Plus, they are uncomfortable with me knowing what they don’t know, or being wrong in front of me. That was some feedback I received directly.”

    This might be because you are widely known to hold your higher level of formal education over your employees’ heads, or at least that’s definitely the impression I get from this letter. It made me think of an unpleasant interaction I had recently with a senior colleague who is one of my organization’s subject-matter experts (I work in communications). His way of telling you you did something he didn’t care for is to condescendingly walk you through it point by point — “See, how I do my job is X and I absolutely need Y to do X, and if I don’t get Y, it’s a real problem” — like you are a kid not quite cutting the mustard in his 10th-grade history class (his job before he went into our field, God save his former students). Just tell me what you want to see instead and we’ll put heads together about it. Don’t patronize me to death.

    1. Dust Bunny*


      My boss knows a lot of stuff that I don’t know but he doesn’t lord his Master’s and years of experience and professional training over me, he just gives me the information I need that he has and I don’t. It’s not an issue if the manager doesn’t make it one.

      1. willow for now*

        And once he gives you that information, now YOU HAVE IT, TOO!!! What a sweet resolution

  72. STEMprof*

    I’m a professor and I don’t do this with the faculty and staff working on my projects (if I’m not sure of the answer or don’t have a strong opinion, though, I will sometimes turn the question around to them, and we’ll figure out the answer together). We are all super-busy, and it would be wasteful of everyone’s time if I used the socratic method every time they had a question. It also seems a little patronizing.
    I do use the socratic method in class, but that’s because I’m teaching!

    1. AthenaC*

      Some of us are in fields where teaching is part of the job. Some people are better at it than others. Without knowing what field the OP is in, sounds like many of us are reading through the filter of our respective fields, which is yielding all sorts of interesting perspectives.

  73. Lora*

    So, people learn in different ways and I think if you persist in the Socratic Method you will find a great many people have ways of problem-solving that you will dislike or think of as Wrong. For example, when I first went into engineering (from hard science), many of my professors and some managers felt I was Doing It Wrong because my instinct was to find an actual data set and then sift it for patterns – instead of trying to solve the problem from first principles. When I replied that there might not *be* any first principles for some of the things we were doing, or those first principles might not be a good approximation due to the fabled Spherical Cows, they were quite grumpy about it even though I wasn’t wrong. Plus, you will always have the issue of people not wanting to be punished for being wrong, or being thrown under the bus when their judgment call wasn’t supported by you or by senior management. Before they’ll be willing to make judgment calls at ALL, you have to prove to them that you will have their backs. I’ve had a LOT more managers who would happily throw me under the bus when trouble came knocking, than ever had my back, and this is very normal human behavior.

    What I do is this: everyone gets a side project for their Development Plan, if your workplace does that sort of thing, and this is where they can work on their critical thinking. They have a problem to solve, I give them a rough framework on what I’m looking for (problem statement, background info summary, methods and protocols for data collection and analysis, report), we put together a timeline, and then we have weekly or biweekly meetings and check-ins to see how it’s going. It can be quite slow, this is a side project. During that time, you get a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses: are they good at executing a protocol but not good at looking up the background information? are they bad at organizing their thoughts on paper and sticking to a plan, but good at thinking quickly on their feet? are they good at finding and organizing collaborators, but not great at putting their nose to the grindstone independently? Do they know how to set up orthogonal data validation to be sure of results, how are they at troubleshooting possible issues when they get something unexpected? Are their math skills lacking, do they know a lot about differential equations and not enough about statistics? There’s a LOT of reasons someone might be not awesome at critical thinking, and Socratic method isn’t going to figure this stuff out for you. Then I give them templates to work from, the option of additional training, etc. for whatever they are not at least OK doing and help them work through their specific issues.

    It’s all confined to this one project though. Their regular job, we don’t do all this. It’s made clear this is a low stakes deal. If they need help with one specific thing, you will find it – sometimes it’s really a communication problem when you thought it was a thinking problem, sometimes it’s a thinking problem when you had assumed it was a communication problem. Sometimes it’s a weird resources problem – plenty of times I asked a question and the response I got was, “what? Don’t you know how to use the computer?!? It’s right there in Database You Don’t Have Access To!” Yeah, well… It can be a lot of reasons, and one of the big ones is, does your company make it safe to fail? If there’s even a hint of shooting the messenger, expect that you will never, EVER get anyone to think independently. This is way too common at many jobs I’ve worked. That’s why you start with a low stakes side project thing, so you can give them space to be wrong.

  74. Sacrificial Pharmacy Tech*

    I had a professor in grad school who used the Socratic method with us and I was endlessly frustrated with it because it made me feel stupid if I couldn’t come up with the answer. I know he did it because he knew I knew the answer and wanted to make sure I remembered the concepts, but all it did sometimes was make me afraid to ask questions. He at least could tell when we were truly stuck and beyond stressed and would help us come to the answer.

    But that’s academia. If my managers at work did this, I would be pissed. I understand the frustration of having people ask the same questions over and over again, but that’s either a training or employee confidence issue, and you’re not going to build their confidence if you play 20 questions with them all the time. I could see the LW losing their job pretty quickly if they get a reputation as being hard to work for.

  75. The Rat-Catcher*

    Honestly this sounds exhausting. My manager does a process like this but it’s MUCH shorter and it’s the same few questions every time. “Did you check the Llama Manual? How about the Llama Memos? The Llama website page?” And it’s always the same so that you figure out pretty quickly not to come to her if you haven’t done these things. If she takes it further, it’s often because she’s not as familiar with our specialty and is problem-solving alongside us.

  76. Pumpkin215*

    Stop. For the love of God, STOP.

    I had a manager that did this and it was excruciating. “Ted, how do you want to categorize the apples”. “How do you think it should be done?” “Uh….the same way as the grapes?” “No”. “Ok, well we could treat them like oranges….” “No, try again”. “Uh…..” “THINK about it. It is an apple. They are a red fruit, blah, blah, blah”.

    It. Drove. Me. Insane.

    Eventually, I stopped going to my manager with questions. I’d ask another manager. Then Teacher Ted (as we called him behind his back) would get irritated that I didn’t come to him. He was “concerned” that I didn’t come to him with questions. That’s because it took a chunk of time out of my day and as a result, he really made me feel stupid. Everything was becoming a knowledge test. If I’m asking you, that means I don’t know!! He had to dole out a lesson and also used a lot of sports references.

    I never felt dumber in my career than I did working for him. Clearly, I don’t work for him anymore. Please stop doing this to your employees. You can guide and teach without lecturing.

    1. Elbe*

      This brings up a really good point. If some of the questions that they are asking the LW are matters of preference (there may be multiple ways of doing something well), then he’s not really educating them at all, but rather expecting them to guess his opinions.

      It could be that they’re asking questions not because they don’t know how THEY’D do it, but rather they want to know his preference, as their boss, so that they can do it to his tastes. Having someone be pedantic about a matter of taste would be 1000x more intolerable than being that way a fact or common practice.

  77. old curmudgeon*

    I think the most cogent phrase in Alison’s response is “Also, it’s important for you to tell them what you’re doing and why.”

    Providing the answer to “why” is the single most effective tool I have ever found to both convince people to remember what I want them to do the next time AND to start thinking for themselves so that the next time they ask a question, it builds on the prior one rather than being the same question every time.

    Do I do that every single time I answer a question? Oh, heavens, no. Sometimes a person really just does need a quick piece of data in order to go forward to do their job, and they don’t need a lesson with that piece of data.

    However, whenever I am asked a question with a complex, many layered answer, I always take the time to provide not only the what and the how but also the why behind those. I want the person to be able to bring that understanding to their next question and see if it appears to apply there as well. And in my experience, I very frequently can see that process play out, when someone comes back with something like “I was thinking about why we groom llamas from front to back, and I wonder if the same logic applies to grooming alligators.”

    Explaining the “WHY” increases by several orders of magnitude any time I train people – if you are in a class learning governmental cost allocation theory and practice from me, you can expect a whole lot more about WHY it needs to be done in one way and not another than anything else. Yes, eventually we’ll get to the nuts and bolts of how to design an allocation – but by the time we get there, you will have a comprehensive grasp of WHY we are choosing one method over another, and you will be able to apply that knowledge to other situations.

    A formal training class is also the only setting in which I would utilize the type of question method that the OP describes in her letter. That type of dialog simply doesn’t belong in the context of a busy day of work challenges, or at least it doesn’t in my world. The place for that is in an actual training class, and only after enough of the material has been provided that the students should be able to start applying it in that method.

    To the OP, I wonder if you can work with your company’s HR/training area to develop a training curriculum for your staff. If you feel that they would benefit from learning greater critical thinking skills, possibly developing a formal learning environment to facilitate that would be beneficial. I have to say I sympathize with your staff in their frustration with the impromptu training in the middle of work, but it might possibly go over a little more successfully if it is presented as a formal training opportunity. Just a thought that might be worth exploring.

  78. Retail not Retail*

    We ask my manager stupid obvious questions all the time and if he pulled this I would lose my mind. He can be inconsistent and rarely gives a reason why or a full picture of what we’re doing. (Oh it’ll be this at the end so I should do this middle step this way to make it easier. What a dream that would be.)

    The couple times I’ve gone off book, yipes. “Why did you cut that?” at the morning meeting. A couple hours later after I asked him to come down and see what I was seeing, he asked me that again. Because I didn’t make the supervisor hold my hand and tell me what “across” from this spot meant so now I am being a pain in your butt bc what you’re asking now makes no sense!

    One of my coworkers – supposedly hired for her creative skills, has had to redo two big all-day tasks because they weren’t exactly what he wanted, not that he told her exactly what he wanted.

    Of course, he’s not consulting with his boss like he should because we’ve had to redo stuff that was his idea because it wasn’t what someone else wanted.

    That’s when I say “I’m hourly I’m hourly if it has to be done in more time they’ll pay OT but they probably won’t so it’s not my problem.”

  79. Medium Grande*

    I had a boss who did this. It was super annoying. I finally had to say to them, “If I’m coming to you with a question, it’s because I’ve already tried to find the answer out. I’ve already went through other channels to find out the information, and I’ve come up empty. Would it be possible for you to just tell me the answer? There is a lot of time being spent on things that are unnecessary and I would like to use my time to focus on our top priorities.”

    They were gracious about it and I never had a problem with them using Socratic method again.

    1. Sacrificial or essential?*

      Omg this. If I am already dealing with a heavy workload and high expectations, and then you take 30 minutes to play 20 questions instead of giving me the resources I need… it’s an 8 hour workday. You just wasted 6.25% of my day, and I’ll be the one punished for that wasted time. The line about not wanting to be wrong in front of their manager spoke volumes about the culture on the team/in the workplace as well!

  80. Autistic Farm Girl*

    I know i’m not the only one (and maybe this is starting to be a pile on, i don’t know) but the part about “they ONLY have bachelors” (emphasis is mine) is gross. If you can’t work with people with less formal education than you without looking down on them you have a real problem. And you really need to acknowledge your privilege. Being able to attend formal higher education is very much a privilege that not everyone has access to (and as usual, the ones that are more likely to not access it are minorities), so maybe remembering that YOU had a privilege is the way to go. Instead of thinking that you’re the norm and anyone who hasn’t done as much as you is stupid and it’s somewhat your mission to educate them.

    I work with people from all walks of life, doctors with phd in stuff that I can’t even begin to understand and high school drop outs, and I have never (and never will) treated them differently. Formal education is no proof of intelligence or work abilities.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      My husband had a bachelors. He used to say, “All that proves is I can take a test. That is all that proves.”
      He was a brilliant man who considered himself average.

      There is a huge, huge difference between book learning and hands-on experience. Day and night difference.

  81. Jam Today*

    I had one manager who did this, and there was never circumstance in which it was *not* incredibly condescending, rude, and just plain bad management. His method, which I’m sure he also thought was “the Socratic method”, was to refuse to help but simply make me guess or do things incorrectly until he got whatever it was he was looking for to begin with. This did not “improve my thinking” or problem-solving or whatever he thought it was doing; the only thing it succeeded in doing was convincing me that I was a complete failure who wasn’t smart enough to be in my job.

    The reason I go to managers for guidance or question is because I need help; I don’t need someone to be a gigantic dick to me in the middle of my workday when I’m already overwhelmed with trying to solve other people’s problems for them. If someone comes to you for help, help them instead of being an arrogant, condescending sh*thead.

  82. Ellie*

    I’ve seen this done well and I’ve seen this done poorly, and I have to say that Allison’s comments about context were spot on. Is it a factual question that does not require critical thinking that you already know the answer to? Just answer it. Is if a factual question that they should be able to figure out and will need to figure out in the future? Depending on urgency etc., you could reply reply with the answer + method, or just method.

    There’s a really big difference between pointing someone in the right direction with a question vs. asking them a question like you’re a professor during office hours.

    I would never respond with “I don’t know; how might you figure it out?” to a factual request because I find it extremely condescending. The closes I’d come is “I don’t know where X is; have you tried searching A and B?”
    One of my co-workers (different roles, same level of seniority) did this for EVERYTHING. He would “teach” me (and everyone else) anytime he was asked a question — including yes or no questions. He alternated between unnecessary background and quizzing, and was *more* likely to do this when we were busy — I think it was a stress behavior for him.

    I handled the “pop quizzes” (that’s really how they came across) with “I don’t need a pop quiz right now; I just need an answer” or “I don’t need to understand why for this; I just need to know the answer” because sometimes, really, I didn’t need to know.

    This is in contrast to a lead on my team working with his direct reports who are about 10 years junior in our field. They are learning all the time and we work on a very research- and knowledge-heavy, challenging product. They are all strong critical thinkers, just very inexperienced in comparison.
    He chooses between three responses:
    1) answering the question directly, only including context or followup questions if necessary
    2) asking them to explain their current understanding, then working from there
    3) closer to the Socratic method as described above if it will be valuable to go through that process, e.g., “what’s your first instinct?” or “what could you look up to get started?”

    Rarely do they become annoyed because he does it very judiciously. He’ll say things like “normally I’d like to talk through this, but for the sake of time, X. Let’s talk about it later” if now isn’t the right time, and doesn’t coach them unnecessarily.

    My own approach when people “should” know the answer (or be able to figure it out) varies depending on urgency, how often they will need to figure out similar problems in the future, whether I’ve already explained how to find it, etc. For example, when asked for a point of contact, I will either say “Jane”, “Jane, which I found in (link to our internal listing)” or “I don’t know; have you checked (name of internal listing)?”.

  83. Lady Heather*

    I don’t understand what purpose the Socratic method has in a workplace – isn’t the socratic method poking holes in whatever the other person says until the person doesn’t know their arse from their elbow?

    At least, that’s the way the Socratic method was explained to me in high school: Socrates asked a military leader whether he thought he (the military leader) was important, and when the leader answered ‘yes’, Socrates asked what ‘important’ meant, and when the leader said ‘a person of significance’, he asked what significance meant, etc, etc, etc.

    (And that so annoyed the military leader and all the other people he tried that trick on that he was cordially invited to partake in the drinking of hemlock.)

    1. Sarah N*

      I think it can be used that way (and maybe that’s the technical definition). I think often in a teaching/learning context people more mean it as “using questions to help students figure things out.” So, for example, if a student comes into my office hours struggling with a math problem and asks for help with problem #4, I’m not going to just say “Well, the answer is 29” and leave it at that — this is not going to help the student understand the material and they’ll fail the test if they just answer “29” to every problem. Instead I might lead them through working out the problem by asking more basic questions that lead them up to the final answer. (Again, I don’t even think this is technically the Socratic method, more just what I think OP is getting at here.)

      But yeah, that’s going to be extremely tedious in a work context in all but the MOST limited of circumstances.

      1. Lady Heather*

        That’d make more sense in this context, yes – but that seems like the reverse of the actual Socratic method, which seems to have as purpose to shoot down any answer to a question until you agree that it’s ambiguous and there is no answer.
        What you describe would be asking questions until someone does have an answer.

        How on earth did those two methods get the same name?

        1. Well...*

          This reminds me more of sophist dialogue. Socratic methods are generally in good faith.

    2. Alias*

      In law school (and possibly other grad schools, I don’t know) it’s used as a way to draw out an answer from students, and to get them to think critically about why they arrived at the conclusion they did. Students are also allowed to ask questions of the professor.

      In OP’s case they’re probably referring to the process by which they force the other person to essentially explain a) that they already knew the answer to the question; and b) that they should have done more critical thinking before bringing it to OP’s attention. As in “I need to know the name of the chief llama herder OP, can you give it to me?” “Well, did you check everywhere you could think of? Where did you check?” “I checked X Y and Z places” “Can you think of any other places the llama herding contact information would be?” “No…” “Haven’t you worked with Jenny in the llama herding department before?” “Yes” “Do you think Jenny could have the information?” etc.

    3. Heraclitus*

      OK, philosophy major to the rescue!

      In a nutshell, the theory behind the Socratic method is that we actually don’t need to LEARN, all we need to do is REMEMBER. This is because our souls are immortal and have been exposed to math and geometry and so on infinite times.

      Later teachers took this as an analogy, and decided what Socrates really meant was teachers must help figure out the answers to the problems vs: telling them the answer.

      And later, much poorer teachers often used it as a method to bully and intimidate their students.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Nice summary here. I like this a lot.
        Yes, pretty much people read the stream of questions as bullying.

  84. Fitzroy*

    I like my boss version of this, which is generally a variation of “so, how would you decide this?” (mostly when it is a judgment call, or when I ask for his input because I don’t have all the info he gets at his level – but the key here is, that it is truly an open discussion, where he wants to hear my opinion and reasoning, and I know I have convinced him sometimes to see it my way, not for him to watch while I struggle through an answer to guess what he already knows.
    And since I know he will most likely ask this, I come prepared to make a case for my solution.

    1. Sarah N*

      Yes, I don’t think the point is at all that you can never ask your employees questions when they come to see you, whether to better understand their thinking on an issue or trying to figure out where things went wrong in a process or whatever the case. It’s more the “fishing for the right answer” thing that would be incredibly frustrating as an employee. If it’s the sort of question where there IS one right answer (or one right answer that the boss will accept), then just tell the person that! And if there are broader issues with the employee asking too many questions, deal with that separately (i.e. better training, giving them a checklist to go through before asking for help, asking them to ask a coworker first, telling them to review documentation, etc. whatever the specific solution is).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Really good point. I have never been upset with a boss who is having an actual conversation and sometimes we both ask questions.
      My problem is the know-it-all boss (who seems to know the least usually) who insists on making employees grovel and beg for information on how to do their jobs.
      I have had really fun bosses who gave me information from their level so I could think along with them as we tried to find solutions. I enjoyed the mental gymnastics. Dealing with problems is not a lot of fun but if the boss actually knows their stuff then trouble shooting with them becomes a real high/kick.

  85. Lady Heather*

    Also, re-reading this letter made me feel secondhand humiliation on the behalf of the employees. Just.. no.

    It’d make me not want to go out of bed in the morning.
    Heck, it’d make me terrified of work and of the manager and of asking questions – and it’s been proven that you can’t actually learn when you’re afraid. Stress hormones interfere with learning – and also, according to your brain, everything you’ve ever done in your life while afraid was a good decision because you’re still alive. Literally. If you’re so afraid of your manager that you would cross the street without paying attention just to get out of their way, and you break three vertebrae, your brain – at least, your limbic system (which takes over when you’re afraid), not your ‘thinking brain’ – thinks that you made the right choice because you survived.
    (This is also why it’s almost impossible to change a pattern of behaviour while you’re under a lot of stress, btw.)

    (I’m wondering if the OP’s employees took a lot of sick days.)

    1. Alias*

      I’m highly skeptical of the idea that you can’t learn when you’re afraid, at least not without some heavy caveats. I don’t think that we’d have any functioning militaries, martial artists, or even functional adults with anxiety disorders if this were true in and of itself.

      1. Lady Heather*

        “Exams, tight deadlines and interpersonal conflicts are just a few examples of the many events that may result in high levels of stress in both students and teachers. Research over the past two decades identified stress and the hormones and neurotransmitters released during and after a stressful event as major modulators of human learning and memory processes, with critical implications for educational contexts. While stress around the time of learning is thought to enhance memory formation, thus leading to robust memories, stress markedly impairs memory retrieval, bearing, for instance, the risk of underachieving at exams. Recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour. Together, these stress-induced changes may explain some of the difficulties of learning and remembering under stress in the classroom. Taking these insights from psychology and neuroscience into account could bear the potential to facilitate processes of education for both students and teachers.”
        Vogel, S., Schwabe, L. Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom.npj Science Learn 1, 16011 (2016).

        The Wikipedia page on “Effects on stress and memory” also has some information, under the headings “Learning” and “Anxiety disorders”.

        It’s probably different for acute vs chronic stress, and mild vs severe, but I don’t have time to look that up right now.

  86. Heffalump*

    I don’t know that this is true of the OP, but some people are just arrogant and think, “This is obvious to me; therefore it should be obvious to everyone on the planet in general and you in particular.”

  87. Jaybeetee*

    Ironically, LW doesn’t seem to be applying a lot of critical thinking skills to this situation.

    That probably comes across meaner than I meant it. But LW should consider that a) a workplace is different from a classroom, b) her reports aren’t students, but educated adults in their own right trying to work, c) different people need different styles of help and feedback (you could decide everyone needs to adapt to your methods, but performance and morale will likely suffer as a result), and d) different situations require different approaches. Right now, it sounds like OP has a hammer and is trying to make everything a nail.

  88. Orange You Glad*

    I think it’s also good to step back and think about what you are expecting of your employees. Are they supposed to be at a level where they can handle critical thinking and tough judgement calls on their own? Are their positions more analytical or clerical? If they need to develop more critical thinking skills to do their job, then you need to make that clear to them.
    I’m actually surprised at the responses in the comments. I work in a more analytical area and this is absolutely the only way I’ve been managed and what has been drilled into me by my boss. We encourage learning to do the work yourself in the future, not doing to work for you. Hashing through a problem for 30-60 mins with your manager is the norm. Of course, the understanding is that you have worked through the problem as much as possible yourself before asking the manager to make time to help.
    I think it’s also important to also know why they are asking for help. Is it that someone just can’t remember where a file is stored or are they struggling to grasp a complex issue they are researching? Not every interaction needs to be a teaching moment.

    1. filosofickle*

      I tend to agree. There is not enough info about the kind of roles and the content of the conversations to have a strong opinion if the OP is using this kind of coaching appropriately, but in my field, critical thinking and creative problem solving are the top skills to develop. (And many people don’t have it.) This approach is one I use at least some of the time.

    2. EngineerMom*

      I’ve been coached like this, and appreciate it in the right context, but as a default to every question asked, big nope.

      I work in a job that very much depends on problem-solving skills, but sometimes the question is literally just “I can’t remember where that link was”, and to be then handed a 10-15 minute “let’s get you to think through how to find this” would be infuriating. Just send me the damn link, and I’ll bookmark it.

  89. Elbe*

    Oof, this is bad.

    If the LW’s team lacks some critical thinking skills, they should plan specific training for that. Bringing everyone’s work to an abrupt halt for lengthy “lessons” is incredibly inefficient and patronizing. It’s part of the LW’s job as a manager to pick up on patterns in the questions and address the knowledge or skill gaps directly.

  90. George*

    Wow! I have a masters degree and this would drive me to leave just about any job.

    Sometimes, people think they know the answer, but they need to confirm. Maybe it’s because they aren’t actually in a position to make a decision (because only office managers can delete accounts without approval). Maybe it’s because prior-manager asked them to always check on X first (in which case, tell them if that’s not what you want). Maybe it’s because they know there’s stuff the manager knows that they don’t, and they want to make sure they aren’t undercutting or causing themselves cleanup work (e.g. there was a big management meeting last week, so I’m going to double check before I pull the trigger on that new printer that seemed so controversial in the meeting before hand). Sometimes, people are so busy “in the weeds” of their own work that they aren’t sure about X and so they check, rather than get it wrong.

    Now, in any case, if that’s not what you want them to do, for whatever reason, you can TELL them that. You can coach them on what to bring and NOT bring to you – or a timeframe (so you aren’t interrupted 20 times a day). But to take a 2-minute question and drag it out will be torturous even when it IS absolutely necessary.

    There are clearly cases where people need to think through a question first – and people who have lots of trouble with that. But if it’s a whole group, then I think the issue might be that the LW is either confusing her portion of thinking through things with theirs (I can reason out things, but I’m not the decision maker for everything nor am I tracking the same issues my managers track) or not setting clear expectations of what they want to come to them versus what the employees are empowered to decide on their own.

    One of the things I like about my current position is that it is VERY clear about who needs to approve what (training/spending over X/spending under Y/etc).

  91. Colleen DeViliers*

    My best employees are the ones that actually have some substance to their questions. Like they will have solutions…I thought maybe this, or that, which one is it and then I can give a quick explanation and get back to them. It’s the people who just send “can we do this?” with literally nothing else and I tend to go back and try and get them to tell me things.
    Occasionally there are definitely questions like this, but I want people to have done all the research and have an idea prior to responding. I also appreciate when they say “just want to confirm”. those are easy and fast.

    1. miss_chevious*

      This is where I land. I supervise other professionals whose roles by necessity require that they use their judgment, and there are a few on my team who come to me with questions like “can we do this?” or “please review” with no context and no thought process behind it and it’s very frustrating. I need my team to do the heavy lifting and, when they get stuck, come to me with explanations about how they got to where they were going. If they don’t, then I will engage them in this process to push them toward the right questions. If they can’t get there, they can’t be successful in the role.

  92. CastIrony*

    My poor scattered brain would not work under someone like this. I’d feel very incompetent, even though I’ve been dying llamas pink my entire career, and people at previous jobs liked how I did it.

    I can’t read people, let alone their minds!

  93. SusanIvanova*

    I recently asked a manager a yes-no question that was rather obscure. He took that as me needing “handholding” (direct quote) for the everyday parts of that process, which I found infuriatingly condescending. I do know how to get the answer if I have all the information, and I do know how to *get* the info in *normal circumstances*. This wasn’t one of those.

  94. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    I don’t have much patience for people who have some jazzy “unique” reason for what they do. “I’m not at work to do the work! I’m teaching you how to think!” So who’s doing the work then? OP is trying to use her position to bolster certain ideas she has about herself, and that’s not what her job is for. This isn’t the way to gain a reputation for being a great teacher, and the job/industry might not even have use for people who want to play that role.

  95. Texan In Exile*

    I had a boss who did this to me. I finally lost patience and told him, “I am not stupid. I know how to do research. I know how to figure things out. If I have resorted to coming to you, it is because I have exhausted every other possible source of information. If you don’t know the answer, that’s fine, but if you do, would you please just tell me and stop wasting my time?”

    1. EngineerMom*

      Love this!

      When I’m trying to explain something to anyone (my job involves a lot of helping people find information in various databases our company uses), I always start with the question, “Where have you already looked, so I don’t waste our time?”

      1. willow for now*

        When I have to explain some chemistry / geology / philosophy to someone, I will ask what they already know about it, so I don’t have to waste time AND sound condescending to my audience.

  96. Never Sleeping Beauty*

    I did this, to an extent, when I was a manager, but my staff were all undergrad students in what was likely their first job that used professional skills (tutoring). But I didn’t do it as a gimmick, or in lieu of giving actual answers where appropriate. It was a selective technique, as Alison suggests, used in situations that were true teachable moments.

  97. RussianInTexas*

    At my old job our CEO for a while signed all his official letters and missives as “You Coach and CEO”. It rubbed me the wrong way so much.
    No. You are my CEO, but you are not my coach. I did not elect you my coach, and you are teaching me nothing. I just work here.

  98. EngineerMom*

    This has very little to do with your employees having “just bachelor’s degrees”, and a lot more to do with your approach to being a manager.

    Neither of the two best managers I’ve ever had even had a bachelor’s degree, and I’ve worked in multiple areas, under almost a dozen managers at this point. Those two managers helped me grow a lot professionally.

    The worst manager I ever had was a Master’s-prepared engineer who did NOT belong in management – he ended up leaving the management position and doing much better in a customer-facing role within the same company. His poor management in my first job out of college nearly put off working in engineering altogether.

    Good managers adapt their management and coaching styles to suit the situation and the employee. Just like good parents adapt their parenting styles to suit the child, and good teachers adapt their teaching to suit the student. Setting goals for professional development and helping your employees work towards them is completely appropriate. Treating every daily interaction as an opportunity to force your method of “development” on them for goals you haven’t mutually agreed upon is not.

    Your management method isn’t working – your employees have told you that, both directly and indirectly. You need to seek out appropriate training and learn how to work with the people you have, not the ones you wish you did.

  99. James*

    I find this question sort of amusing because part of my job description is literally “Ask the right people questions”. There are some situations where you know the answer, but are not authorized to give the answer. If my manager came to me with the Socratic method my response would be “Here’s what I think. But I need your email stating the answer so I can fill in my tracking sheet. Otherwise we both get sued.”

  100. Bopper*

    In addition, be careful that you are not teaching them to not ask you questions. They may guess or ask someone else and go down the wrong path.

    I had a boss who went to management training and learned about a spectrum of employees…junior ones need more coaching/handholding where more senior ones can work more on their own. She took that to mean that whenever we came to her with a question she would give it back to us to work on. But we were senior enough to know what we knew and could influence and what we actually needed her for so if was frustrating.

  101. IntoTheSarchasm*

    One-third of the adult US population over 25 has a Bachelors degree. Not rarefied air but not common and an achievement that many struggle to reach. Most have nothing further to gain from a graduate degree, especially considering the expense. Your language around this was very off-putting. Also, at work I have things to get done and being quizzed instead of getting needed information would make me walk out the door.

  102. JustMyOpinion*

    “None of my team members have post-grad schooling, just bachelors degrees.”

    Stupid $80,000 good-for-nothing Bachelor of Science degree! And let’s not even talk about those who don’t even have that. That’s one ace of a boss, folks. One that doesn’t get invited to happy hour either.

  103. Anon attorney*

    Dude I haven’t got time to read all the comments today but you need to Google Situational Leadership stat. It’s a framework for helping you decide when to coach and when to tell, and I think it will help you.

    As a qualified coach I get the intentions here but coaching is not a superior form of managing, it’s a tool with specific aims, to be used only when helpful. Sometimes other ways are more helpful. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out when to teach and when to tell. Good luck, padawan.

  104. Observer*

    OP, I haven’t read all of the comments, so I’m not going to post all of my thoughts. But one thing that I want to say bears TONS of repetition.

    Successful coaching does not require that the coachee has a high level of educational attainment. It DOES absolutely require that the coach has respect for the person being coached. I don’t know what is in your head or heart. But your statements are NOT respectful.

    And, your lack of respect is having a secondary effects – it’s blinding you to the fact that YOU need to change something. You’re getting consistent negative and actionable feedback. And you assumption is that the REAL problem is that they are all intellectually lazy because they don’t have graduate degrees. Absolutely NO consideration of the mere possibility perhaps classroom methods that work with young people are the the best way to coach adults in the workplace. Worse, no consideration of the possibility that your attitude is a problem.

    I hope for your sake and the people that work for you that you’ve gotten this figured out to some extent.

  105. Mademoiselle Sugarlump*

    I’ve had a couple of bosses who did this, and I liked it. They were open about what they were doing and framed it as “Let me help you see how you could have found this answer yourself – did you try x? Would it have made sense to assume y? What made you think z?” and so on.

    They both treated mistakes the same way – “tell me your thought process that led you to make this decision so we can figure out what went wrong and you won’t do that again.” It worked well.

  106. char*

    My employer has a rule of thumb they call the 5 Minute Rule: If you have a question about something, spend at least 5 minutes trying to figure out the answer for yourself. But if you’re spending much more than 5 minutes and still can’t figure it out, ask someone instead.

    This heads off people who are inclined to ask questions the moment they come up even when they could look the answer up themselves in seconds. But it also heads off people who are inclined to bang their heads against a problem for hours when someone else could give them the answer they need right away.

    It kind of sounds like OP would rather their team always figure out the answers for themselves no matter how long it takes. But that just isn’t practical. I wouldn’t want my team spending ages trying to figure something out when I could give them the answer easily off the top of my head. I usually also link them to the resource where the answer is documented, or briefly explain how I figured it out so they’ll know where to start in the future. But I figure if I’ve already done the work to figure out the answer, there’s no need for them to duplicate all that work from scratch themselves!

  107. Allonge*

    Oh boy. I don’t know, I have two types of people coming to me with questions.

    One is curious, motivated, has exhausted other resources. Has a genuine question and asks me. At this point I assume they need the answer (see motivated etc.). I tell them, and I tell them my reasoning behind (unless there is no time for the why part). We can talk it out until we have the same understanding.

    The second type is either lazy or has no thinking skills that apply to the situation, critical or otherwise. Asks me a question, all the same. What on earth do I have to gain here by going seven rounds about what they think?

  108. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    “Just” bachelors degrees? Thank you for your estimation of your team’s–and many other people’s–educational achievement. I wonder if that view spills over in your dealings with your team.

    You say you’re a new manager. What was the previous manager’s style/what is your team accustomed to?

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      BTW, my bachelor’s is paid for. That’s something I learned in life.

  109. Mara*

    This question and thread have been really interesting to me. I’m a new manager who moved into the role from entry level. When I started, we were a new client-facing division of the company and there wasn’t anyone who had the technical expertise to answer my questions. So anything I learned about troubleshooting technical issues I learned by figuring it out, sometimes through google, but mostly by playing around and seeing what worked.

    I’m now supervising a team of three, and I’m finding myself increasingly frustrated that they can’t problem-solve technical issues, or they miss issues that we see repeatedly (think once a week or less as opposed to daily). All three (but one significantly worse than the others) either come to me with the same relatively simple troubleshooting questions over and over again having forgotten the answer. Or worse, they go back to the client and ask the client how to do something (the client has no idea), or tell the client they can’t do something that should have been able to figure out, which really confuses and sometimes upsets the client.

    I’ve created a reference guide for common troubleshooting issues, but the team’s instinct remains to ask me, or to go back to the client instead of taking a bit more time to troubleshoot for themselves and try to figure it out. Instead of giving answers immediately, I’ve been trying to coach by giving hints instead of a full answer, asking if they’ve checked x or y, asking if they remember case z where this happened and what we did then, but I’m not seeing a lot of improvement and this thread has me wondering if this is a bad approach.

    Should I just give them the answers and making clear that they are not to go back to clients for problem-solving/troubleshooting? This thread has given me a bit more perspective to the fact that maybe not all of them learn in the same way I did (by figuring things out), but if that’s the case I’m wondering how best to help them learn. My goal is to make sure that the team is set up to continue providing quality service to clients when I’m not there to answer questions. I’m also finding that other parts of the job require a lot more critical thinking than how the role was originally understood, and so I would really like to improve the team’s overall level of critical thinking.

    1. Khatul Madame*

      First, there should be no asking the client for help. Your team works for the client, not the other way around. Make it very clear and explain the consequences (risk of losing the contract). At the same time tell them what you wrote above: the goal is “to continue providing quality service to clients when I’m not there to answer questions”. Say it out loud to the entire team.
      If your work involves metrics, incentivize independent resolution of issues without consulting/escalating to you or the client.
      Have the team members contribute to the reference guide/knowledge base.
      This may be enough to wake up those of your team members that are capable of independent troubleshooting and discovery. Others may leave and you will have to screen for critical thinking skills when you recruit replacements.

  110. esther*

    Sounds like the letter-writer is just…. a bad teacher. This is not how you teach people–at least, if they tell you they dislike that method it’s not. Stop forcing these people to go through this annoying charade.

  111. Well...*

    There is a really interesting discussion to be had about how power dynamics and using the Socratic method interplay.

    The more I experience it, the more I think it is only effective if you are teaching someone who has very little expertise in the topic at hand, and if you have a relationship that won’t change if they reveal how little they know.

    I find the assumption of these background conditions plays into gender dynamics in a really gross way. Like, when men expect women to know nothing and also to feel completely comfortable being talked to like they know nothing and prodded into a line of reasoning that presses selectively into what they don’t know. Of course the asker is always in control of this direction and can easily hide his own lack of knowledge behind “oh I didn’t tell you because I was trying to teach you.’

    Tldr; use the Socratic method only responsibly and with abundant caution. Even in settings where everyone is just trying to learn, it is not always effective or appropriate.

  112. Ready to retire*

    I can relate to the *over it all* of the employees. We have hundreds of employees and thousands of students whom all share on tech help team. If anything goes awry or you require an update, you must submit a tech ticket via email.
    Every. Single. Time. The tech person‘s responses: Have you cleared your cache? Have you restarted your computer? Have you tried a different browser?
    Look, I’m 60 years old and have been using computers since the 80s. Please. Don’t insult me.
    It’s gotten to the point where I’ll Google the shit about it anything (which I usually do anyway…), phone a friend (haha but yes…) and go without rather than put in a ticket and suffer this kind of infuriating demeaning behavior.
    Stop with all the back-and-forth emails and just fix it for me!

    1. x*

      I get how frustrating that can be, but in the tech person’s defense… In a large organization especially, they don’t know each user’s level of tech savvy so they have to start with the basics. They also might have procedures they are supposed to follow (also more likely in a large organization). To get around this, I will describe the things I already tried when I submit my ticket. Sometimes it can cut down on the initial back and forth, but ultimately, you shouldn’t take it so personally. They’re not trying to insult you or be demeaning, they’re doing their job.

  113. Obelia*

    I made this mistake briefly when I was a new manager too. (Like the OP I am a woman, as it happens.) It’s good that the OP is mulling over the feedback and hopefully is willing to adjust her style.

  114. AD*

    The biggest red flag in this letter is the snobbery about having a graduate degree. You really think that makes you so different from the lowly 4 year degree holders? Unless you’re a doctor or a judge or something, no one else cares.

  115. Karak*

    I have a visceral reaction to this.

    Years of high-paced environments means that if I ask a question I usually am asking *exactly* what I need, either to confirm something I’ve decided but need an OK, remind me of something I briefly forgot, or tell me something I don’t know. If someone spent a significant amount of my workday leading me around by the nose instead of answering a yes/no question, I would hate them.

    OP, this is extremely inappropriate. Do you do this to your partner when they ask where the juice is or what time the movie starts?

    This feels like a weird power-play of public humiliation and withholding information. And you clearly don’t have a great grasp of teaching/coaching/pedagogy, because scaffolding is much better for skills acquisition than the Socratic method. Stop this immediately. Pull someone aside during a lull if they have a bad skill or knowledge gap they need help with, and STOP assuming they will never ask you another question because you wasted a half hour of their time.

    You seem to be well-liked, and have an honest culture, and care about your employees. Tinkering with this particular quirk will do you good.

  116. tinybutfierce*

    So, I have ADHD and this would be a particular nightmare for me. I really, truly have a near-impossible time learning things by being verbally walked through them; not because of inattention or lack of focus, but because I need to physically do tasks for myself in order to get the muscle/brain memory down, and then I’m golden. I am just not an aural learner. If I had a manager who put me through a 15-30 minute verbal hand-holding session every time I needed help with something, it would be BEYOND frustrating, and I’d definitely stop going to them with questions, at the very least.

  117. Cake decorator*

    This sounds annoying. I understand where you are coming from, and trying to teach them to find the answers themselves, but personally, when I go to my manager with a question, I need the answer now. It’s also because I have tried to do it myself, but am now in need of help. Also, it is much more time efficient to give your employees the answer (assuming it’s not the same question over and over. That’s a different conversation), so they can get back to work. When you compare your level and education to your employees level of education, it makes you sound snobbish. Please remember not everyone needs or wants a Masters or PhD to be a good employee. you are equating an advanced degree with being more intelligent and that is not necessarily the case.

  118. KJB*

    Someone else in the comments said they’re sensing a little “academic snobbery” and I’m picking up on that too. It’s hard to tell whether the reports to the OP need to learn how to problem solve or if he/she (also guessing “he” like other commenters) is stuck in the thinking that if the reports are not problem solving the way *they* would problem solve, then the reports aren’t problem solving “correctly.”

    I frequently saw this push-pull between the PhDs in the R&D department where I worked, and the techs in the machine shop. It was two different skill sets, and each assumed theirs was right and/or better.

    To me, a little give and take is a good idea – I like having a boss with whom I can hash things out. But a boss who *knows* the answer and makes me work to get to it? That’s someone being condescending. My feeling is that the difference comes from whether we’re both trying to get to an answer, or if I’m having to jump through hoops to convince my boss to tell me something they already know.

    It’s a bit like tech support. Most of us only call tech support when we’ve already tried what we know how to do, and we need the input of someone with more knowledge and experience. Most of us only go to our bosses for help when we’ve already done what we can to problem solve, and we need the input of someone with more background information and authority.

    Asking for help and being made to dig for it is discounting all the effort, experience, education, and maturity of the person asking. These are grown-ups and the starting assumption should be that they’re trying to do their jobs like grown-ups and should be treated like grown-ups.

  119. No coffee, No work*

    Having been in a role like the LW, I can tell you it’s also super annoying when the team comes to you repeatedly throughout the day instead of trying to solve it themselves. It takes away from my work and slows everything down. It’s particularly tough when you answer the same questions from the same people over and over and over again.

    I wasn’t a leader, but I used to start by saying something like, “Tell me what you’ve done to solve it so far, just so I don’t repeat your efforts.” 9 times out of 10 the answer way, “I’ve done nothing.” Then I would tell them to go try X, Y, and Z so they would learn to solve things more independently. (It was a role where problem solving skills were needed.)

    I don’t know much about LW’s role, but maybe it would be helpful in some cases, not all, but to just ask what they’ve done so far to see if they are in fact trying.

  120. J.B.*

    I’m not sure this is the full case, but in a previous employer there was a manager who 1) insisted on making all the decisions and 2) when employees came to him for approval (and they knew exactly what would happen, but he needed to approve) he spent 20 minutes talking around the entire issue before agreeing with what they had originally proposed/expected to happen. That manager had a poor opinion of everyone else and it showed. Think about your reasons for handling things this way.

  121. Leela*

    “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”

    Triple underline this! On their end it might seem like you’re just being difficult, or overexplaining, or any other thing. They don’t know about the college conversations you’ve had with professors; they’re just up against a timeline!

  122. M.H*

    I feel like I probably do a lesser version of this. I manage Office Managers, and if the question isn’t something that needs an urgent answer Right Now, I might ask them “what do you think?” or “what is your recommendation? 99% of the time their intuition or problem solving is spot on, they might just be needing validation. If their recommendation and my answer don’t line up exactly, then we’ll talk through the situation and come up with a plan or answer. I definitely feel like there are situations that need answers immediately and you have to be in problem solving mode, not coaching mode.

  123. TardyTardis*

    I had a boss who would do this at 7:30 am while my coffee had yet to kick in. I was also aware that GAAP is expressed differently with different supervisors (the principles are the same, but the exact presentation is um, flexible). I wanted to shriek, “just tell me what you WANT!”. She was a dawn patrol person, I am a swing shifter, and I normally perk up very well about 3 pm while she would fade into the sunset. Of course she never asked me those questions then!

    So glad not to be working for her now.

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