How to Handle an Employee’s Stupid Questions When There are No Stupid Questions
I was recently asked how a manager should handle an employee who continues to ask the same question over and over; this, despite having been given the answer repeatedly in the past. The issue, as this manager saw it, was how to handle this employee delicately (holding back on the frustrations he felt), while at the same time ensuring the employee retains the information provided for the next time this situation arises.
Of course, we’ve all been taught that there are no stupid questions; yet when this manager faced the same question almost weekly from a 15-year employee, he began to doubt this axiom. Was he dealing with someone who had special needs? Were they just being passive-aggressive or perhaps insubordinate? He wanted to know how to deal with this employee without letting the constant (and needless) repetition get to him.
Managing v. Leading
The answer for this manager came down to leadership. That is, instead of just managing this employee (which is what he had been doing), I encouraged him to also begin leading her. This issue, I felt, could very nearly epitomize one of the key differences between a leader and a manager. (An often philosophical debate that gets so overblown I usually avoid the hair-splitting.)
In this instance, a leader would show patience, understanding and caring each time they were asked the same “stupid” question; though they would take it one step further and find ways to help this employee answer this question for themselves in the future. (Ensuring that there’s never a need for the employee to repeat the “stupid” question.)
A manager, on the other hand, would answer the question each time; though with more outward displeasure the more they had to answer it. Eventually, a manager would allow their emotions and frustration to boil over; finally shutting the employee up enough times so that he or she never asked another “stupid” question ever again.
The result, of course, is that the leader would develop a proactive contributor and the manager would create an unhappy follower.
But I Still Get Frustrated!
The truth is everyone gets frustrated from time-to-time with coworkers and subordinates; the key is to not display this outwardly. As a manager, you must suppress your frustrations so that the company’s direction will matter more than your emotions.
There’s no secret to hiding frustration, you just do. However, if you consciously cannot hide your frustration with a subordinate, I recommend you look for the child inside your employee. Everyone who works for you was once a child; many of whom asked a lot of questions over and over while they learned how the world worked.
The key here is that you wouldn’t be outwardly frustrated with a 3-year old who asked the same questions again and again, would you? Therefore, finding the child inside your employees allows you to develop the patience needed to manage in these situations.
Price Check on Aisle Five!
Interestingly, in this case, the manager was being constantly summoned by a senior cashier to approve a price override on items below the threshold that required management approval. (The cashier, you see, had the authority to instantly approve these herself without repercussions.) So, why did she call the manager? Who knows; though it was clear that the employee knew she could complete the overrides.
This, in my opinion, had the potential to create customer service issues, and needed to be stopped.
My advice was simple. When the cashier calls you over, stop solving the issue for her. Whether you do an actual price check, or you simply give the customer the benefit of the doubt, you’re doing the cashier’s work for her. She will continue to call you over so long as you keep doing the work.
Instead, each time she calls for a price check, assume she simply forgot she has that power to override on her own and treat these instances as customer-included, on-the-job training sessions. This means we’re going to (nicely) retrain her again and again in front of the customers.
Politely ask her to push the buttons necessary to complete the markdown. Doing so may make her feel embarrassed – so just make sure you’re not condescending. Simply take her through the steps every time as if it’s the first time you’ve taught them to her. But, make sure she does the work, not you.
You’ll find once you stop solving your employees’ non-issues, you’ll empower them to solve these for themselves and free yourself from constant interruptions… and stupid questions.