Learning & Development

Teach a Man to Fish—The Value of Training More Self-Sufficient Employees

There are many motivations for training employees. To name just a few:


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  • Reduction of errors
  • Improved quality
  • Better customer service
  • Avoidance of legal or regulatory liability

But one of the biggest motivations is increased employee efficiency. Employees who are trained properly should be able to complete their work more quickly.

But beyond the employee being trained, training can more broadly improve company efficiency by avoiding the need for employees to escalate issues up the management chain, thereby freeing up more time for their superiors to focus on broader goals and challenges.

Understanding the Purpose of Their Work

The most basic form of this is simply employees having a solid understanding of their primary job function. For example, junior accountants with the ability to do a monthly checkout for a typical month of operations wouldn’t be expected to regularly forward questions to their manager.

But what if something out of the ordinary happens one month? Employees with only the most fundamental training, knowledge, and experience may very well find they need to ask their boss for guidance.

In order to reduce the number of questions, one might consider broadening the scope of employees’ training to include a wide range of possible scenarios. But it’s unrealistic to think that one can train employees on every possible situation.

Instead, organizations should strive to train their employees to be able to address unfamiliar situations on their own without the need to involve their managers.

Training for Self-Sufficiency

For example, using the hypothetical situation above, the organization could train junior accountants on how to research answers to uncommon accounting situations so they can find the answer themselves rather than continue asking for one-off answers in one-off situations.

This might involve education on where to find commentary on General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rules or a process for making the best assumptions given the available information.

In other words, teach them to fish instead of giving them fish. An additional benefit of this approach is that people tend to retain information they learn themselves and practice it rather than information they are simply told by others.

When employees can find and implement solutions to their own problems, they are more likely to remember what they learn, feel more confident about their abilities, and free up time for their managers to spend on higher-level responsibilities.

Often, employees turn to their boss or coworkers to ask questions for which there is a widely known answer. “What’s the process for requesting approval to travel to a customer location?” “How many grams can this part be over the specification and stay within quality controls?” “What is the industry standard for compiling this type of report?”

These are questions that shouldn’t require answers from other employees. Instead, companies should make the required information available and train employees on how to find that information.

There are three fundamental sources of information that should be provided to employees to help them improve their self-sufficiency.

Company Policies

Every company should have basic policies in place to regulate employee behavior, define expectations, and delineate acceptable uses of company resources. The employee handbook is the most common source for these policies, which should be reviewed and updated as needed.

Many companies often put some documents in an online format on a company intranet that is searchable, offering even more convenient access to needed information.

Work Instructions

Similar to company policies, but in a more detailed and thorough format, are work instructions. Work instructions define the process and procedure for completing certain common tasks.

For example, a manufacturing company might have work instructions on how to manufacture a shelf, starting with where to find the needed parts, how to modify and assemble those parts, how to verify quality, and finishing with where to deliver the completed product.

Industry Knowledge

Not all information an employee might need is specific to his or her employer. An employee might have questions on information that is relevant to and general across an entire industry.

For example, an employee might need to know which regulations apply to the export of a particular product or the melting point of a raw material used in the production of a good.

Organizations should consider creating a directory of reliable sources for answers to questions like these that employees can turn to when needed.

How a manager’s behavior can either contribute to greater employee self-sufficiency or exacerbate the problem. If a manager can help employees learn how to answer their own questions and solve their own problems, the employees will become more self-sufficient, competent, and confident.

A Strategy to Boost Self-Sufficiency

How do you go about teaching people to solve their own problems and answer their own questions? As we discussed above, one simple strategy: Provide sources of key information, such as company policies, work instructions, and general industry information.

Now, we’ll focus on a strategy that relies more on the response of the manager to employee escalations. Essentially, managers should resist providing employees with answers and solutions—even when they know the answer or might be able to solve the issue more quickly than the employee.

This might seem counterintuitive at first. Shouldn’t the goal be to address problems and answer questions as quickly and accurately as possible? Well, in general, yes. But, while solving the problem for the employee in every instance might save time in the short run, it doesn’t do the employee or the manager any favors in the long run.

Putting the Theory into Practice

There are many ways to put this concept into practice. A manager might simply appear unavailable to answer the question for a period of time, leaving as the only option the employee solving the problem for himself or herself. Or, the manager might utilize the Socratic Method and—rather than provide a quick answer—ask questions of his or her own to bring the employee around to discovering the answer.

Of course, not providing an answer in order to encourage an employee to find it can’t always be the course of action. There might be time constraints or matters of sufficient importance that prevent a teaching moment.

But if a manager can keep the concept in mind and use it when appropriate, this is a strategy that can go a long way to encouraging more self-sufficient staff.