How to use the Socratic method in the workplace and avoid micromanaging

How to use the Socratic method in the workplace and avoid micromanaging

While it might seem easier just to tell your employees exactly what you want them to do, rather than discuss things with them, over the long-term, that will have negative consequences for you, your staff and your company.

Telling subordinates what to do doesn’t encourage them to think and learn, doesn’t produce better ideas for and ways of completing projects at your business, and makes employees feel like drones.

With an age-old, yet simple, management technique, you can create a win/win/win for yourself, your staff and your business.

Use the Socratic method to ask questions instead of simply giving answers and you’ll immediately see the results in innovation, quality of work product and employee satisfaction.

What is micromanaging?

The term “micromanaging” refers to the practice of a boss or manager getting involved in the very small details of a subordinate’s work. This can include telling the subordinate exactly how to perform a task, pointing out obvious things as they complete their work, asking for frequent updates and requiring the staff member to ask for permission before taking even the smallest step.

In extreme cases, a manager who micromanages will actually start the work for the subordinate and sometimes finish the task.

Problems with micromanaging

Bosses who micromanage damage their employees’ morale, stunt the professional development of employees and create higher employee turnover. It can also leave the company exposed to work stoppages if the manager (who is the only one who knows exactly how to do the work) becomes ill or leaves the company.

This latter situation occurs because the boss has not taught their subordinates the basic skills to run key aspects of a department or office in their absence.

Micromanaging is a big red flag to your staff and superiors that you don’t have faith in your subordinates, which means you don’t know how to hire well. It can also signal that you have low self-esteem and a big ego. (“No one can do it as well as I can!”)

What’s the Socratic method?

In a workplace scenario, the Socratic method is a management technique of asking questions, rather than giving directions, to help employees understand and buy into what a manager wants.

How to use the Socratic method as a management technique

Things to keep in mind when using the Socratic method are:

  1. Ask for employee input

    For example, instead of a boss saying, “We need to increase sales by 10 percent this quarter. I want you to make 40 more phone calls per week and offer a 15 percent discount to new customers,” a manager might say, “We need to increase sales by 10 percent this quarter. What are some ways we can do this?”

    In addition to getting answers such as, “We can make more calls,” and “We can offer a discount to new customers,” you might get additional ideas. Your staff might suggest, “What if we bundle these two products and reduce the price?” or “What if we enclose a 20 percent off coupon good for 30 days, each time we ship orders?”

  2. Try to solve a problem, rather than just ask for an answer

    When using the Socratic method, try to solve a problem, rather than just ask for answers. For example, if your staff is taking too long to respond to customer complaint emails, don’t just ask for ways to reduce response times. Explain why customers are upset, how this can lead to more returns of products (if people don’t get a quick fix), that customers might go to your competitors, and that long wait times for customer service can increase the number of poor online reviews.

    Now you can ask, “Based on what we know happens when we have long customer reply times, what can we do to reduce our response rate?”

    Even if you have a specific task and know exactly what you want your employees to do and how to do it, using the Socratic method helps you create a better team environment. You can lead your staff members to the answer you want by the end of the discussion, which shows them that your answer is the best solution (if it is).

  3. Don’t use the Socratic method all the time

    If every time an employee asks you for help you answer, “What are some ways we could handle this?” you’ll start driving your staff crazy. Sometimes, employees want to be led. They want a quick answer so they can finish the task.

    Think about the child who keeps asking, “But why?” every time you answer.

    The Socratic method and problem solving work best in team or project situations, rather than with everyday task assignments. Using it in the right situations will make you a better manager and your staff better producers.

Benefits of using the Socratic method

Using the Socratic method and problem solving might take a bit longer than simply telling your employees what to do, but it has multiple benefits, according to Stever Robbins, founder and president of Leadership Decisionworks, Inc., a  consulting firm that specializes in organization management.

Asking questions rather than just giving answers can help your company in a variety of ways:

  • It helps employees think about the task and understand it better.
  • It can result in new ideas you hadn’t thought of.
  • It helps give employees a sense of empowerment if they get to make suggestions.
  • It can help employees come to the conclusion that what you’re asking is the best way to go.
  • It makes you look like less of a micromanager.