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Practical Guide for A Manager Part 2: Teach Employees to “Fish”

Written by Contributor Published on   5 mins read

Teaching employees step by step is not what a wise manager would do.

Editor’s note:

This article was originally published in the WeChat public account iquanwai. The writer Sun Quanquan is a former consulting director at Mercer and later founded and became the CEO of Quanwai (圈外), which focuses on providing mobile online learning products for working professionals. Kr-Asia.com has been authorized to publish this article.

This article introduces strategies that are effective yet often neglected by managers. Giving detailed tips on a specific task is not what a wise manager would do.

Instead, teaching your employees how to think and work by themselves will benefit both the company and employees in long-term.

This is the Part 2 of a 3-Part Series.

Link to the Part 1 and Part 3.

Teach him to fish

Photo by Alan Bishop on Unsplash

Everyone knows the saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. But not everyone can achieve this. This is because both the manager and staff have neither the motivations nor capabilities.

From the worker’s viewpoint, they are not willing to learn how to “fish”. Whenever facing obstacles at the workplace, once they get the “fish,” they can quickly get the answer. This is very rewarding.

For example, you want to write an activity plan and your manager taught you how to write it step by step, and you followed accordingly. First and foremost, you are saved from doing useless work and second you felt you learned something.

But if you really want to learn “how to fish”, you will experience failure because research has shown repeatedly that learning comes from making mistakes.

Taking the same example of writing a plan again. If your superior asked you to come up with the plan yourself, the majority of the people will go crazy. One reason is because the work will be rejected if they get into the wrong direction, and the second, if they spend hours thinking and still could not come up with something good, they will feel like a failure.

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Staying within your comfort zone and gaining experience little by little every day is the work mentality most people are accustomed to having.

But if a problem arises that the team has never encountered, they will feel frustrated. If the manager fails to give adequate guidance and encouragement in time, the team will give up easily.

From the manager’s point of view, investing in training has an uncertain return.

One reason for this is high attrition rates; i.e. it is likely that the worker will leave after getting trained.

The second reason managers don’t want to invest in training is because growth takes time.

A simple example to this is improving communication skills. The minimum time for someone to acquire this skill is 3 months, and managers are not willing to wait.

Lastly, even if the manager is willing to train his team, he still needs to bear the cost of employees making mistakes during the learning process.

If the manager arranges everything, this would be the safest path. But if he lets employees learn by trial and error, he has to take responsibility for the possible consequences.

Again, taking the previous example of writing an activity plan, if the manager lets the employee think about it before giving his or her own ideas, although such an employee will grow, he may not be appreciative. Also, if you teach him once and he cannot pick it up, you will get frustrated.

Furthermore, you have to worry about being required to take over matters in the last-minute. If things get delayed, you not only get the blame from your boss, you also become the scapegoat. After a while, yes, the worker will grow better but ultimately, he will leave you.

It looks like from every angle, “teaching the staff to fish” is not practical for a manager.

So why do I think it needs to be done? The answer is simple: Optimal allocation of resources

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In economics, there is a concept called comparative advantage. In essence, a company, person or country has a comparative advantage if they are able to produce a good or service for a lower relative opportunity cost than others.

Let’s take a simple example: If you are a manager leading a subordinate, your management and planning skill is a rating of 9 and your subordinate is 5; your execution ability is 8 while your subordinate is 6.

In this instance, how do both of you collaborate?

Logically speaking, if you are good at everything, when working alone, your efficiency is at the top. But we all know that this is impossible, because we have limited time and energy. If you spend a lot of energy on one thing, the energy you have left for the next thing will surely decrease; therefore, you must delegate.

You carry on doing what you have a comparative advantage at — managing and planning. Even though your execution ability is 2 points above him, your management and planning skill, on the other hand, is 4 points higher than him.

Therefore, if you spend time executing the work, you will not have the time and energy to manage and plan.  Hence the opportunity cost is very high.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.

Therefore, from the management perspective, the most efficient use of resources is continuing to train employees and letting them grow, leading them to be able to do more work, and letting the managers carry out more high-level tasks for which they have a comparative advantage.

Many managers are unaware of this, and a lot of companies at the end up with a rather astonishing phenomenon: the upper management doing the work of middle management, the middle management doing the low-level groundwork, and the entry-level staff all bantering about company strategy because they have nothing to do every day.

Therefore, do not just look for short term advantage like for a particular job or for a particular week. Only by “letting the staff learn to fish” can an organization allocate its resources in a more organized and effective manner.

This way every person as an individual, whether they are a manager or a worker, will have optimal performance.


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