24

I am still in training and sometimes my boss does not answer my questions. Other times he tells me to think about it. For example I was setting up a new machine and asked him to confirm I should install a certain program and he said to think about it and I should not be asking such questions. (Ok - I'm new on this site, would anyone like me to defend my position why my question was not bad in the sense I should have known the answer?) I have trouble with these types of responses because

  1. It is better to make sure something is done correctly than doing it wrong
  2. Since this is a job wouldn't it be better for our department to be most productive? If he answered the question instead of me spending time looking it up/figuring it out I could have got the work done faster.

I realize it may take too much of his time if it required a complex explanation but for something as simple as a yes or no question or the name of a server I don't know why he can't just tell me.

I know I don't learn from reading through articles until I stumble on the right answer. If he thinks I'm going to remember a fact, such as the name of a server, better because I had to read through pages of information I wasn't looking for, I don't learn better this way.

What should I say next time a coworker doesn't answer or tells me I should know this? I find it offensive the way he says it as if I'm dumb for not knowing it.

71

Give a man a fish...

If you ask me what the current rate between JPY and USD is, I can tell you (about 95 JPY/USD). If you need to know the same thing again next week, or next month, and I'm not around, what will you do?

It may be efficient in the short-term to just tell you to use 95, but long-term if an important part of your work is knowing what the JPY to USD rate is, it's much better for me to teach you how to figure it out rather than just telling you the answer.

Now many people may assume this means I should just give you a link and then it will all be okay because you can find it next time. Problem solved, right?

What happens if you need to know the rate between USD and EUR? What will you do then? Of course I can give you another link, but then you will just have two separate links, and run in to the exact same problem if another currency is required.

This is no good.

Teach a man to fish...

What many good bosses will do is to ask you to think about it. When you think about it, you are developing problem-solving skills that can be used not just to finish the current task, but to be able to tackle future issues you aren't perfectly trained for.

So maybe it would be quicker to set up this computer if your boss told you the server name. But what happens for the next computer? Will he need to accompany you every time you set up a computer so that you can know the server name by asking him?

Think about it from your boss' perspective

Do you really think your boss doesn't want "to make sure something is done correctly than doing it wrong", or for "our department to be most productive"?

Of course he does. The difference is perspective. He can teach you the name of the server this time, and you learn nothing, and the lesson gets delayed (though the computer gets set up quicker). Teaching you earlier means you will be quicker in the future.

What he wants is for you to make an effort to forward their own education.

To go back to the currency example, if you need to use the JPY to USD rate in your work, and you look it up on google and a couple other sites, and can say, "I need to use the JPY to USD rate for work. I looked it up on Google and the rate was 95.74. Bloomberg says it's 95.61. What is our policy for which rate to use?" then it tells them you are trying to solve the problem, but need guidance on something only the boss can tell you -- what the internal policies are for which rate to use.

If your boss says, "We have an internal rate for official calculations, but for most work you can just use the google rate or the bloomberg rate, just make a note of the time/date/source of the rate you use in the document" then you never ever have to ask that question again (hopefully) as you can apply that knowledge to all your future work without asking. This makes their job easier, even if it takes you 20 minutes to figure out about foreign currency exchange rates on google and wikipedia beforehand.

So where does this leave you?

Perspective comes with age. You are 22 according to your profile, and while I'm sure you're well-intentioned, this is going to be a problem you encounter with almost any office. You said "I find it offensive the way he says it as if I'm dumb for not knowing it" but I think you are both misinterpreting his intention, and taking far more offense than should be required.

You are free to ignore my advice (and learn yourself a few years down the line), but for what it's worth, here it is:

Patience is a virtue

Welcome to the working world. There are many annoying people you will come across. Some will be spiteful. Some will be incompetent. Some will be obnoxious. To some of the people you work with, you will be the one they find spiteful, or incompetent, or obnoxious. Most people will be good decent people working hard to earn a living and enjoy their life.

Business is about people. As much as you may despise it, learning patience with people is a great skill that you will carry throughout your life. Or, like me, you can spend over a decade and still struggle with it from time to time. But at any rate, you should try. Patiently.

Do you like green eggs and ham?

You are young. While I wish you all the luck in becoming a giant in whatever you choose to do with your life, chances are you haven't figured out the best place for yourself yet (I doubt you really want to be inputting server names). This gives you a great opportunity to just try things out and see how they work. If they don't, you're young, you still have options.

The key to this though is to give it an honest shot. You may find your boss' inefficient, mistake-prone, and offensive, but he's the person you report to in exchange for your salary, so why not give what he wants a shot? If it doesn't work, you've learned that your gut was right on this one. And if it does work, you'll grow as a person and have learned a bit of patience and understanding for your fellow human beings.

Both are important. For normal folk like me, the latter is a lot more important because our gut is often wrong and we'd end up a sociopath if we always trusted it.

Pick your fights

At the end of the day, this is tiny. It's a boss not answering a question. Unless you let the stress get to you, it won't impact your life in any meaningful way. There are times to get pissed, like when you get turned down for a (well-deserved and promised) promotion or raise, or if you are told you have to move halfway around the world or lose your job. Getting pissed off about this issue to your boss will hurt you in the long run.

  • 8
    +1 for "misinterpreting his intention" - maybe the reason for most disputes. – Angelo.Hannes Mar 13 '13 at 10:48
  • 6
    I'm not going to downvote the answer because it is a good one, but I feel as though your logic doesn't fit this question's scenario. If it was a question of some knowledge like conversion rates, he should be googling it, but asking your boss if it is Okay to install software is making sure your environment is set up for you to do your job correctly, and there may be a company policy against installing unauthorized software. His boss probably should have said "talk to the IT guys". – CincinnatiProgrammer Mar 13 '13 at 11:20
  • 6
    There's also something else to consider; each time you (or your colleges) ask your boss a small question and he answers, it disrupts his thinking flow. Kind of the straw that breaks the camel's back. – Francisco Presencia Mar 13 '13 at 12:21
  • 5
    @PaulBrown so then with your example, what the OP should be asking is not "Should I install X", but "Where can I find the company policy/guidelines for installing X type of software?". – MrFox Mar 13 '13 at 13:59
  • 2
    omg! you wrote a whole new article. you are the man! – KMX Mar 13 '13 at 15:38
21

There's another aspect to this that jmac did not address:

It's likely that your boss is busier than you are. If you do more research beforehand you maybe can avoid the questions and save him time. He will appreciate that. Also, extending your question with your research results (in your example: reasons pro and con for installing that program) may help you getting an answer.

Looking at my direct superior I see how many people draw on him all the time, so I try to keep him out of the wind...

5

As an addition to the other answers: If the situation you describe keeps occurring, ask your boss about it. Of course, avoid accusing him, but ask how he wants to work with you. E.g., "I sometimes ask questions and get the impression I should not ask them. Is that impression correct? How should I handle such questions?"

Also, you might want to ask the boss to define your authority. Which questions are you allowed to resolve on your own, and where does he want to be involved? You write

It is better to make sure something is done correctly than doing it wrong

But of course as an absolute this is wrong. Sometimes it may be better to get something done efficiently and accept some risk of making a mistake, rather than doing everything perfectly. Ask your boss where he wants to be on that scale.-

4

Last but not least, maybe he does not know the answer!

Telling that you should know or to think about it is a good way for him not to answer, which is what a boss wants when he does not know the answer...

I hope I'm wrong and that he wants to "teach you to fish" but it still may sometimes be the case.

Anyways I deeply join the fact that you should provide pros and cons for different answers (if the question leverages any), and write it then you will be able to post his non-answers and release pressure by joking about it with us!

  • 7
    I don't recall where, but I did see the fact mentioned somewhere just recently that if you spend even half an hour researching a subject before bringing it up with your boss, that's half an hour you've spent looking at options that they haven't. So naturally you'd know more than your boss about that particular subject. They can provide perspective and policy, but they cannot provide an answer because they don't know the alternatives in depth. You do, so the natural person to make a suggestion is you. Your boss may decide to go against it for some reason, or might trust your judgement. – a CVn Mar 13 '13 at 14:51
  • Great statement both by Aname and Michael here. Spot on. – jmac Mar 13 '13 at 15:06
  • @MichaelKjörling that's why I thought it was such a good idea to ask my boss: the question was about policy. If it was a researched based question where the more knowledge is better than it would be better to research for half an hour but I think this is different since it's a matter of company policy. – user8119 Mar 13 '13 at 15:36
  • Thanks @MichaelKjörling, this is what I meant. So maybe you boss disagrees with a company's policy and wants you to avoid it by acting a logical way, but he has no right to do so... Political matters sometimes make people behave weirdly! – Aname Mar 13 '13 at 16:49
  • I'm not sure "should I install this program?" counts as policy. "What is the company policy about this type of software?" would. There's a big difference between "is installing a BitTorrent client on company computers acceptable?" and (assuming BitTorrent clients are acceptable) "is xyzTorrent a good BitTorrent client to install?". At least to me, your question comes off as more about the latter than the former, which makes what I said in my comment above relevant. – a CVn Mar 14 '13 at 8:46
4

You may be asking too many questions, and your boss may be annoyed that you bother him and wants to teach you to work independently. Especially, it sounds that sometimes you ask about things where you know/think you know the answer and just want to check, and expect your boss to hold your hand. If your boss thinks you are doing it just to draw attention, he will want to shut that down.

If you think you have the right answer, and the decision is not extremely critical, don't ask to check. If you need to ask about something you don't know, do some quick research first, then ask coworkers, do your research thoroughly, and only if that fails, ask your boss. And don't ever ask just to show you are doing work.

Hopefully, the boss will realize that you don't ask so often anymore, and answer your questions if you really need them answered. Telling him that you exhausted other sources ("I've already checked the documentation and asked my coworkers") may make him more willing to answer.

Of course, it could also be that your boss is a bad boss, then good luck. But first, try to check if the issue is on your side.