Why do newbies ask so few questions?

Why do old people drive so friggin’ slow? It would seem that with little time left on planet earth they’d hurry up to CVS and pick up the damn prescription and get back to the business of torturing their children and living out their days. But no, they hunker down in that Buick, place their knuckles on the steering wheel, point their battleships toward port and cruise along at a steady 3 knots.

I hope when I’m 85 I drive my age — everywhere I go! I may drive through the 7–11, even if it’s not a Drive-Thru.

What does that have to do with today’s blog entry you ask? I’m not sure, but it’s just another rhetorical question.

As a manager or supervisor we have all had the experience of dealing with the “newbie”. It’s quite nerve racking as a manager actually. You’re trying to set the new tone with the guy or gal and they’ve just come from HR where they’ve gotten a lot of paperwork to fill out and a bunch of orientation stuff that is designed to simply insulate the company from a potential lawsuit. You may or may not realize this but in HR’s eyes they are not an employee. They are a potential litigant in an ugly lawsuit against Fudge Motors. They’re not giving you training, they’re assuring the court that you’ve received training. Welcome to the post-industrial age.

So, Ned or Nellie Newbie has just joined the firm. You’re trying to make their first day completely different than your first day. You remember that right? The guy or girl who was supposed to be your supervisor, showed you to your desk, told you where to get some pencils and paper and if you were lucky and the supervisor was actually a planning person, had a computer, phone and other tools available for you. If you weren’t so lucky they told you that the help desk would be setting those up for you “real soon now”. If you were shit out of luck, he or she would have told you that YOU needed to put in a help desk ticket (ignoring the fact that you don’t have a computer or phone nor do you know how to contact the help desk).

Welcome to corporate America where our associates are our greatest asset!

Fast forward 2 months. You have a computer, you have a phone, you know where the coffee machine is and you know where the best (and worst) places to eat lunch are — but you’re still a newbie.

You’re boss gives you your first real assignment. “Ned, Fred or whoever the hell you are…”, he says, “I need you to write a program to parse the log files and let marketing know how many hits they got on that new flaming logo they put out there. They want to get some feedback on their 6-month project to provide snappier, sexier, more eye-catching, customer attracting websites.”

“Um…cool!”, you say trying to hold back the question that everyone now should be asking themselves — what do hits on the flaming logo have to do with sales? You learn not to question marketing too much in corporate America.

“Oh. If you have ANY questions, any questions at all, please ask me or Joe over there, he’s the resident guru. If he doesn’t know the answer, then the question was probably not worth asking…he he he he.”, jokes the pointy haired boss as he hopefully fades into the background of your life.

But what about the boss’ perspective. He thinks he’s done the right thing. He’s given you the assignment and let you know that if you run into issues there’s a life line available.

What actually happens in practice?

Well, Ned or Nellie struggle for days, weeks or months. When asked about their progress they say, “I’m making progress. I’m running into a few issues, but I’m working them out.”


Trust me when I tell you this, no questions from a newbie = lost in space.

You can also trust me when I tell you this, that’s the natural order of the universe.

Newbies, by definition are ignorant and unaware (some may use the word clueless). I use the word ignorant in a very specific, personal way. By ignorant I mean, they may have some general awareness of something related to your business, but they have little if any knowledge of it. Awareness of your specific industry or situation may be lacking. There may also be a lack of awareness of more advanced elements of their own craft.

They are usually not wholly unaware. They have some limited awareness of the subject matter, domain or skills necessary to perform their duties but they are, for all intents and purposes, fairly ignorant and unaware.

Knowledge is gained through first, awareness and subsequently by, learning and experience. Without awareness knowledge is impossible. Without learning and experience, skill and expertise are impossible. Thus learning is a necessary component of knowledge, but unfortunately insufficient. Without awareness we are clueless.

s the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it.” — Albert Einstein

Awareness exposes our ignorance. Once we understand our ignorance, learning is possible. Without awareness we are forever in the dark. Awareness is a prerequisite for learning. Learning involves asking questions and seeking answers. Why do newbies ask so few questions?

The answer should now be obvious. They are unaware. They have no context. Their circle of light is quite tiny, so their circumference of what they know they don’t know is also quite small. As their circle of light (knowledge) increases, the circumference of what they aware of that they don’t know increases. This is the domain of things they need answers to.

The Circle of Knowledge.

Albert Einstein may have been the first to verbalize this concept but none of this is original thinking, and I apologize for not citing the sources, but it may just be part of the collective brain at this point.

In the figure to the left, C represents the vast darkness of my unawareness. A represents my limited knowledge. The circumference of A represents what I am aware of that I don’t know (or what I know of the darkness). The circumference touches the darkness, thus that part of the darkness, I know; but only that part. As my circle of knowledge grows in size to B, and my circumference grows proportionally, I am aware of more things that I am ignorant of.

In other words, I am now aware of more things that I don’t know about.

Now let’s look at newbies and their relationship to asking questions.

As managers we are all frustrated because we think we know what the the graph of questions vs experience should look like.

In reality, as I’ve explained already, newbies have no idea what questions to ask because they are both unaware and ignorant. This is a bad combination for people that are trying to impress their boss and an even worse situation for bosses that do not understand the newbie syndrome.

So, newbies ask less questions than experienced folks. This dilemma leads to lots of problems when you are dealing with new employees in a business. Newbies tend to get themselves all gummed up because they don’t know what questions to ask and therefore don’t ask any questions at all. They go down rabbit holes for days and make little progress on our precious projects while managing to frustrate the hell out of us.

How many of us have said, “If you were stuck, why didn’t you ask for help?”. The truth is that the newbie is scared of his ignorance, unaware of the fact that he is stuck, unaware of what help to ask for and as we all suspected, just generally clueless.

How do we address this?

First, it is much more important to hire curious people than it is to hire knowledgeable people. This is because curious people will be life long learners.

As their circle of knowledge grows they will know exactly how ignorant they really are! Knowing they are ignorant, curious people will seek knowledge. On the other hand, simply knowledgeable people are sometimes complacent, lazy or just uninterested in expanding their circle of knowledge.

We all know the unambitious know-it-all that has a superficial knowledge of everything but knows practically nothing — a nuance on the complacent and lazy among us. They like to learn new things but do not embrace the circumference of their circle sufficiently to truly appreciate their own ignorance.

Curious and ambitious people however, are recursively blessed in

their pursuit of knowledge. The more they know, the more they now know they don’t know — which leads them to seek more knowledge — which leads them to the epiphany of their ignorance — which compels them to learn more. It’s an M.C. Escher staircase toward knowing.

Second, to combat the newbie syndrome we need to concentrate on awareness first, and knowledge second. Orientation of new employees therefore, should concentrate on making them aware of everything they do not know rather than teaching them a small handful of useless lessons.

A pack of blank index cards with titles written at the top describing some subject they need to know about, together with a reference or two will go much farther in expanding Mr. Newbie’s horizon than 100 on-line training courses.

If we are talking about a technical job, then pointing out that there is a vast library of functions that are “over there” and that this library contains most if not all of what they need tells them something useful. It tells them that, there’s good stuff over there, it’s vast, they’re ignorant regarding the content, but it might solve their problem. If they’re curious, you have them hooked.

I guess teaching someone to fish is ok, but how about telling someone that catching fish is possible and that humans have been known to do that from time to time. Maybe if you make someone who is really bright, curious, and talented aware of the concept of fishing, they might create the ultimate fishing rod! Right Ron?

Third, newbies need hyper-supervision. At the risk of pissing them off you need to hover like the Action News helicopter covering the O.J. chase. Once an hour is not too much hovering for the employee that just started this week. You can ween him off your hourly visits after a week, at which time I would suggest only 8 visits per day (assuming an 8-hour day), which is to say, stick with it as needed.

After a few more weeks you might give him 2–3 visits per day.

After 6 months you might be safe, depending on the person, utilizing one strategically scheduled visit per day.

After several years, one “howyadoin” per week is a good practice.

Your Mileage May Vary — you may have to adjust based on the CQ (Curiosity Quotient) of the newbie. If he’s a really curious guy, he’s going to be a perpetual motion learner at this point and your work is done. Sort of like a self-winding watch. If not, then you have a typical employee in corporate America and a challenge on your hands as they grow old, complacent, tired, entitled, whiny and ultimately become the primary reason HR exists — a lawsuit waiting to happen.

To summarize:

1. Hire curious people

2. Make them aware

3. Supervise, supervise, supervise

So now you’re aware of the Newbie Syndrome and why they don’t ask questions. Any questions? ;-)

Senior Delivery Manager, EPAM

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