“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
Although this quote by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu has been around for 2,400 years, most organizations have not incorporated the principle into employee feedback and development programs. We focus on outcomes rather than the processes. And while outcomes are important, if we want to have high performing, self-sufficient employees, we would be better off spending less time on outcomes and more time on processes.
But two things get in the way: habits and time.
For most of our lives, we have been taught the value of the right answer. Tests rarely required us to explain our thought processes, and instead required us to state the answers. Our teachers judged our performance based on whether we were right or wrong, and we have carried that principle straight into our professional lives. Habits are hard to break.
Right and wrong are also easy and efficient. It takes much less time to correct employees rather than to do the hard work of helping them dig deep into their own problem-solving processes to avoid getting the wrong answer in the future. So, this engrained habit of focusing on outcomes provides us with a highly valuable short-term reward: more time. But the reward is just that—short-term. If we measure the cumulative time we spend correcting wrong answers, my guess is that it would far outweigh the time it would take to help employees develop better problem-solving processes—in essence by teaching them to fish.
Many companies get this right when counseling more experienced management team members but have made little progress in changing feedback programs for those who are less experienced. Dedicating the time to make this change might not only save more time in the long-run, it could also help improve employee and company performance.
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