hand holding a fishing pole; this proverb about fishing says a lot about how leaders should encourage employee growth

Teach Your People How to Fish

By Madison Hanscom, PhD

What does the proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” have to do with being a great leader? In short, it allows followers to be more self-reliant. As a result, employees will enjoy more autonomy in their job, potentially experience more meaning in their work, and it allows the leader to find better balance in their own time.

When employees run into obstacles, you don’t want them coming to you at every single bump in the road — but you also don’t want them making uneducated guesses to solve problems. Although the ideal balance would involve employees who are trained to add value and think for themselves, too often employees are trained to just follow orders. Rather than managers and leaders using a great deal of their time to give solutions, they should teach employees how to fish.

Teach Your People How to Fish

Research has shown time and time again that when you give employees more control over their work, they are more satisfied, perform at a higher level, and are safer (1-6). Leaders and decision-makers should consider ways to give control to the worker. When people are given autonomy, they give back with trust and engagement.

Managers are bogged down.

It is up to you to use the full potential of your people. Let them help you! Consider the following tips when it comes to creating a workforce that will co-create solutions with you:

Teach them how you think.

Managing is giving answers and telling people what to do, but leading is helping them think for themselves. Leading involves coaching your people to the solutions. If you are someone who regularly gives people answers and you would like to start having these individuals think more critically, something that works well when getting your feet wet in this process is to still give them the answer, but walk through how you got there. This way you are starting the process, but you aren’t expecting them to make the change all at once. Let them know what is behind the curtain when you are building solutions.

Give them room to think.

A helpful method once you and your employees are becoming more accustomed to this process is to use a strategic questioning method, where instead of providing the answer, you give the employee time to ask questions of their own to reach the solution. By having them ask the questions, you get to hear their thought process and coach them through it. This helps them to become more self-sufficient and work towards completing the practice on their own. It might seem easier in the moment to just do it yourself or give them the answer, but over time this is will help them to become stronger thinkers which will save you time down the road (thus allowing you to focus on broader initiatives while spending less time in the weeds!). In order for this questioning method to work, you need to have a deep understanding of their job and also anticipate a few mistakes along the way as a part of the learning process. Remember that growth takes time, and you will likely have bumps along the road.

Encourage employee growth.

Let your people know it is encouraged to seek out developmental and growth opportunities that are related to their work. Not only will your employees enjoy the learning, they will start connecting dots in a more complex way as their world expands.

Promote a questioning culture.

Reinforce when people challenge “the way things are always done around here.” The world is changing quickly, and an adaptable workforce will help your company to keep up. By shifting how you think about problem-solving, you will create a workforce of employees who are great at innovation and continual improvement.

Trust them.

Once you have a good system in place and employees have the resources to succeed, it is critical you trust them in order for this to work. There are a few ways you can practice this. First, be transparent. Increase your communication about daily work and big picture happenings. This will show employees you value them. Second, consider justice perceptions. Treat everyone with respect and as equals. When people sense they are being treated unfairly or differently, this can stir up conflict and erode trust. Third, build psychological safety. Employees should feel comfortable expressing ideas about work, and the amount of knowledge sharing will be related to the trust and psychological safety they feel. Leaders should take care to build trusting relationships and an environment where speaking up is not associated with any negative consequences.

Teaching employees how to problem solve and critically think is a win for everyone. It will help the leader’s workload while creating more stimulating, engaging, meaningful work for the employee.

An integral determinant in cultural perceptions includes the manner in which employees feel treated by leadership. In order to have a strong and successful organizational culture, leadership requires attention. This won’t be an easy or an expedient shift. Not only will structural changes be required, but psychological changes too. Changing the culture around leading will require norms to shift across the organization, and collective shared assumptions do not change overnight. There will be individuals to champion this change as well as those resistant to it. Contact us if you would like to partner. We can help you to assess your current state and build custom solutions to build the future you desire.

Referenced Articles:

(1) Zacharatos, A., Barling, J., & Iverson, R. D. (2005). High-performance work systems and occupational safety. Journal of applied psychology, 90(1), 77.
(2) Geller, E. S., Roberts, D. S., & Gilmore, M. R. (1996). Predicting propensity to actively care for occupational safety. Journal of Safety Research, 27, 1-8.
(3) Shannon, H. S., Mayr, J., & Haines, T. (1997). Overview of the relationship between organizational and workplace factors and injury rates. Safety Science, 26, 201-217.
(4) Wright, C. (1993). The effect of work group organization on responses to a total emergency in the offshore industry. Proceedings of the workforce involvement in health and safety offshore: Power, language and information technology (pp. 59-62). Glasgow: Scottish Trades Union Congress
(5) Betcherman, G., McMullen, K., Leckie, N., & Caron, C. (1994). The Canadian workplace in transition. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: IRC Press.
(6) Parker, S. K., Axtell, C. M., & Turner, N. (2001). Designing a safer workplace: Importance of job autonomy, communication quality, and supportive supervisors. Journal of occupational health psychology, 6(3), 211.


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