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Tired of being the office brain
September 12, 2007 8:19 AM   Subscribe

I have a very good memory, which comes in handy at work when issues come up and I can recall the context and history. However, my colleagues have come to rely on my memory rather than developing their own knowledge or referring to other sources of information. How can I get them to leave me alone so I can get some work done?

My coworkers are driving me crazy because they come to me with questions all the time that could be solved by a search of our documentation database or by keeping their own notes. It's gotten to the point where I sometimes say I don't remember just to get people to leave me alone, which doesn't really work because they sometimes go around in circles until I am forced to step in and give them the information that they originally needed anyway. I appreciate on some level that I am the "go-to" person, but I got to this point by being resourceful and figuring things out on my own. I don't necessarily have instant recall of all of this information, but I know where to find it, so I can usually lay my hands on the answer very quickly. What can I do to encourage my colleagues to do the same? Alternately, how can I better respond to them when they ask me the same question they've asked a million times before?
posted by cabingirl to Work & Money (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
"I don't remember." Practice it, use it.

The only way they'll stop coming to you is if it stops doing them any good to come to you.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:23 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


Tell them where to find it for themselves and explain that you are very busy doing your own work.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 8:28 AM on September 12, 2007


Do you have a boss or supervisor? Because it might be an idea to let this person know what's going on and tell them that for the health of your department/company, this reliance on one person for necessary information is not a good idea. You could also point out that if, God forbid, anything ever happened to you (and that includes you getting promoted or getting hired elsewhere) your co-workers would be at a total loss because they rely on you as a living database of vital information.

If you can find a way to broach it tactfully with someone in charge, that would be a good first step. This is all assuming that a) you have a boss and b) s/he isn't part of the problem.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:29 AM on September 12, 2007


until I am forced to step in

How are you forced to step in?

but I got to this point by being resourceful and figuring things out on my own.

They are being resourceful. They've found a resource and keep going back to it.

Alternatively, you have several options:

"I don't know"

"I don't remember"

"Oh, look in the documentation, it's in there somewhere!"

Or send them to the wrong place.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:31 AM on September 12, 2007


If you can get away with it at all, yell at them. Seriously, I used to work at a mail-order computer retailer and the salespeople would put customers on hold and ask me their questions about products, as I knew a lot about them. (My job at that time was not taking sales calls, I should add.) I knew she asked me the same questions a lot, but at one point she asked me the same question two days in a row, which I thought was particularly egregious because it made it pretty obvious that she wasn't even trying. I blew my top and told her I'd just answered that exact question for her yesterday and if she couldn't keep facts in her head for 24 hours, she should be writing them down. She was quite put out and didn't like me very much after that, but she did start doing more of her own job.

If that's not politically possible, take the "teach a man to fish" approach. Since do you have resources that contain your answers, simply start referring people to those resources. "I think that's in the Employee Guide" or whatever. If they ask you where, say "have you looked for the topic in the index?" Take them to the resource and show them how it's organized and how to find the information. Or, send them an e-mail with the answer and say "for your notes" and then if they ask the question again later, say, "I think I sent you that information some time ago, it should be in your notes." Assume they are organized, start treating them like they are competent, and to cover up the fact that they haven't been, they will start doing better. Let them go around in circles; this behavior should diminish as they learn the way around the resources available to them.
posted by kindall at 8:41 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Silly answer: lie sometimes. Give them a wrong answer. Once they realize that they're essentially risking their reputation on some hearsay out of laziness, they'll do that a lot less.

More serious answer (but kind of extreme):
Keep a log. A diary book of lined paper works well. Every time someone asks you something, log the date, time, questioner, question, and answer.

Keep it on the corner of your desk for anyone to look at. They won't, of course, but they could. When they ask you a question you know has been asked before, literally throw the book at them.

At performance eval time, bring the book. The book represents your unique intangible value to the workspace, as well as a log of your lost time due to coworkers' laziness.
posted by ctmf at 8:41 AM on September 12, 2007


At performance eval time, bring the book. The book represents your unique intangible value to the workspace

I would definitely keep this in mind, even if you don't create a log book. At several of my last jobs I was the one who tended to say, "Well, we tried that in the past, and it ended up not working because of X, Y, and Z, so we should keep that in mind moving forward" or "I think we did it this way because of X, but that's not an issue anymore, so it can probably change" or other "institutional memory" comments.

It tended to get me raises.
posted by occhiblu at 8:45 AM on September 12, 2007


Alternately, how can I better respond to them when they ask me the same question they've asked a million times before?

I know that oftentimes I go to the "go-to" person because I literally cannot figure it out on my own. I try and try and try and try. Then I try some more, and then I feel stupid, like I should have done what I always do: ask the "go-to" person.

What has helped me is when someone takes the time to write out an email detailing how to do something, then I can save the email and not have to bother them again. The "go-to" person no longer has to think I'm lazy, and I no longer have to feel stupid. Win-win.

Keep a log. A diary book of lined paper works well. Every time someone asks you something, log the date, time, questioner, question, and answer. Keep it on the corner of your desk for anyone to look at. They won't, of course, but they could. When they ask you a question you know has been asked before, literally throw the book at them.

Do this, but type it up instead and send out a mass email to your worst offenders. Next time they come to you, refer them to each other.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2007


Publish information to a wiki, then steer people towards it. Start responding to questions with one of your own "Have you checked the wiki? No? I'm pretty sure the answer is in there."

Bonus: if the answer is not in the wiki, they can/should feel free to add it.
posted by jquinby at 8:51 AM on September 12, 2007


Do you have a boss or supervisor? Because it might be an idea to let this person know what's going on and tell them that for the health of your department/company, this reliance on one person for necessary information is not a good idea. You could also point out that if, God forbid, anything ever happened to you (and that includes you getting promoted or getting hired elsewhere) your co-workers would be at a total loss because they rely on you as a living database of vital information.
I would make this a last resort, or your managers will actively try to keep you from getting promoted.

I am the go-to person in my department, and I always make them work for it. Ask them, 'What do you think the right answer is?' or 'Where would you look to find that?'

Don't give them the answer- make them give themselves the answer. And once they realize that you're going to force them to do their own work the lazy ones will stop coming by and the only ones that will ask for help are the ones who need help figuring out where to look.

Be very sure that you put this kind of up-training on your review.
posted by winna at 9:20 AM on September 12, 2007


I like the logbook idea, but that's putting too much work on you. Simply set the rule that "all questions must be submitted in writing." Perhaps set up an, uh, ask-me e-mail address for this purpose.

It would be especially slick if you could auto-reply to inbound ask-me questions with a message like "your question is #16 in the ask-me queue. Estimated response time: 4 hours."

Seriously, though, the added overhead of needing to write out these questions may be enough to get your co-workers to look it up themselves. If it isn't, a judiciously measured response time might be a further nudge.
posted by adamrice at 9:31 AM on September 12, 2007


I have had to solve this EXACT problem at my job. I basically did what jquinby advised above. We use Sharepoint and I used the message board function to create a FAQ with categories they can search.

Basically, think of it this way.

A) They want to pick your brain.
B) You do know the answer.
C) You need to do other work.
D) You still want to be known as the knowledgeable go to person.

To meet all 4 of these goals, you need to let them access your knowledge without bothering you, so putting that knowledge in an external resource they can pick over gives you that opportunity. Plus, you will find that even more people will come to know you as the person with the answers.
posted by slavlin at 9:35 AM on September 12, 2007


Can you make your co-workers do your work while you get them the answer to their question? Something like, "Sure, sit here and answer my phone while I get it for you; I can't miss this call." Or, "Here, run and copy this while I get it for you, so I can keep up with this project." If they can appreciate that their questions derail your progress (and in turn derail theirs as they cover for you), they might think twice before asking something they could find themselves.
posted by xo at 9:38 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


Is it possible that your colleagues really don't know how to look things up in the documentation? Or is it that they see asking you as a quicker short-cut? If you have the time, instead of answering the question you could do some hand-holding, take them to the documentation, and show them where the answers are. Walk them through all the steps that you use to find the information. Likewise, if it is something that they need to take notes on, tell them, "OK, get out your notebook and write this down. The next time you have this question, we're going to look in your notes." And so on.

I know it sort of like treating them like children. On the other hand, they seem to be treating you like a teacher or a parent. So, act like one, and teach them to solve the problems.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:55 AM on September 12, 2007


"OK, get out your notebook and write this down. The next time you have this question, we're going to look in your notes."

If someone said this to me, I'd never want to ask him a question again (which solves the problem), but I'd also think he was a grade-A asshole (which creates an entirely different problem).
posted by 23skidoo at 9:59 AM on September 12, 2007


How are you forced to step in?

I step in when they come to incorrect conclusions which will have bad repercussions. For example, when someone overreacts to an error message in our software and asks for changes from the vendor ($$$) when it's an error caused by our own setup and can be fixed in 1 minute. I know that I should let them make the mistake and deal with the consequences, but I have a hard time sitting idly by; I feel like my reputation is as much on the line as theirs. This is probably something I need to work on for myself.
posted by cabingirl at 10:03 AM on September 12, 2007


I had this "problem" when I was working for a call centre answering customer emails. I've got a pretty good memory for trivial details and naturally became the one everyone seemed to turn to for answers.

It negatively impacted my performance, for sure. I consistently had some of the lowest stats in the group. If you've ever worked at a call centre you know that stats mean a lot.

I put problem in quotes because I made sure that it didn't adversely affect me in the eyes of my supervisors. I was constantly going to my supervisors with suggestions and concerns. For example I would say things like:

"So far this week, four agents have asked me about procedure X. There seems to be some confusion about it. Maybe there should be an email sent to everyone to clear things up?" or

"Our standard response for query X is generating a lot of followup questions along the lines of Y and Z. Maybe we should think about changing the response to incorporate answers to those questions."

It also helped that the supervisors were physically present a lot of the time and could see that I was being approached regularly and setting people straight.

Soon, my direct supervisor was asking for my help or input regularly and seemed to genuinely value my suggestions. I routinely saw a suggestion I'd given be implemented a few days later. I'm certain that I would have risen in the ranks of the call centre if I had not left.

My advice is to continue to be a great resource in the workplace and to make sure that you get recognized as such.
posted by ODiV at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2007


Is it possible that there is some part of you that enjoys being the 'holder of all things informational' and being relied upon in this manner? We have a similar situation with one of our coworkers, and as much as she complains about being taken away from her job, I think she actually feels 'special' about having everyone come to her for stuff like this.

The first thing to do is decide that nobody ever asking you about stuff is not goign to be a blow to your ego, and then start saying "i dont remember, you could look it up" as often as possible, unless you really are the only person who has a particular bit of knowledge.
posted by softlord at 10:53 AM on September 12, 2007


but I have a hard time sitting idly by; I feel like my reputation is as much on the line as theirs. This is probably something I need to work on for myself.

Yes. Not everything at work is your problem.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:05 AM on September 12, 2007


Get everyone together, and do a database demonstration using some of the questions you commonly get. Write a cheat sheet for them, and have them each do some searches while you are there to help.

If they get it, great, you can always send them there.

If the database is too difficult for them to use, a solution which matches their needs must be found, perhaps a Wiki as was suggested above.
posted by Riverine at 11:06 AM on September 12, 2007


I am seconding xo. You need to make it less profitable for these people to ask you to do their work. Most people are perfectly capable of doing whatever it is they are asking of you, but for some reason, they won't. Show them that they can do it with just a touch of ingenuity.

I frequently review the question with the questioner. I politely ask them to make it perfectly clear that they would like *me* get the dictionary (instead of them) to see how a word is spelled, or that they would like me to search Google for the answer. Then, I'll ask to sit at their desk in their chair so that they will have the answer conveniently located on their computer. A lot of times if you can adeptly restate what it is they are asking you to do, they see that it really isn't that hard for them to do the work themselves and that it is pretty silly that they are asking you to do this.

There is definitely a style pointing out how ridiculous their requests are without insulting them. The point isn't to be insulting, it's to indicate that your time is also valuable.
posted by battlecj at 11:45 AM on September 12, 2007


I had this problem and dealt with it (not solved it) by sending email answers. I kept a file of the answers I'd sent, so I could reuse them for different people and so I could say to someone who asked the same question more than once, hey, don't you have that email I sent you about it? If they said they deleted it, I'd resend it (as often as required) but they could see how many times I'd sent it because I'd resend the most recent one. After a bit, they started keeping the emails in a folder and referring to them before they called me.

I think in these circumstances it's fine to be a little irritated, "Geez man, you asked me that last week AND the week before, why don't you take some notes or something?" because these people are not acting professionally.
posted by b33j at 2:50 PM on September 12, 2007


I was excited to read this question because I have the EXACT SAME PROBLEM, so I'm a little disappointed that so many of the answers are geared towards an office-situation. I work in a knitting shop. When one of the staff call me to ask a question for the 400th time, I can't tell them to "Check the Wiki." And even if I could, they're probably dealing with a customer at that very minute. It's frustrating. I have no problem with people who genuinely want to learn to be self-sufficient, and I even gave one member of staff a lesson on using the Internet so she could look up stuff herself. The problem is with the ones who call me out of laziness. The ones who say, "This customer needs help with a pattern and I don't know the answer," and then when I come out to show the customer (and the staff member), wander away to do something else.

Unfortunately I haven't hit on the winning strategy yet. I've tried pointing out that they ask the same questions every day. I've offered to show them how to look up the information themselves. ("But I'm too stupid to ever use the Internet!") I've even complained to the shop owner about the drain on my time and the constant interruptions. I think the only solution is to go on vacation or find a new job so they have to fend for themselves for a while...
posted by web-goddess at 2:59 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the great answers everyone. Some combination of letting people deal with their own messes and beefing up documentation to give them resources seems to be the way to go.

web-goddess, vacations never work for me because they tend to put stuff off until I get back. But I could see it maybe working for you because they can't exactly put the customers off in the same way. Good luck!
posted by cabingirl at 3:51 PM on September 12, 2007


They're coming to you because it's "cheaper" in time and effort for them to do so. What you need to do is fix this cost disparity. You can do this by increasing the cost of coming to you, or making it cheaper to go to another source/solve it themselves.

One simple way to increase the cost of coming to you is to make them wait. No matter what the request, or how quickly it would take, just put them off for 5 minutes. Apologetically say "I just have to finish this, could you come back in 5 minutes?". Chances are, they'll go back to their desk, find some other way to get the info, and not come back. If this doesn't make a serious impact, make it 10 minutes.

Another way to increase your cost is to never solve the problem for them, but to lead them to the answer. Listen to the issue, then say "If I were you, I'd start by looking $PLACE. Maybe google for the search terms $X and $Y". You're not lying to them by saying "I don't remember/I don't know". You're not being mean by saying "Go away". You're just giving them a push in the right direction to solve the problem themselves. The best part about this approach is that you're teaching them how to find the information they're looking for, so in the future, the cost of finding the info themselves goes down.

To decrease the cost of another source, a good strategy is just what you're doing: Document the heck out of everything. I like a wiki with a built-in search engine for this. Then when they come, you can say "Have you checked the docs? I think I wrote something about that once. Try searching for $SEARCHTERM."

If you think in terms of costs, you should be able to come up with some other creative solutions.. The talk I learned this from had some other suggestions like "Make them do something for you in exchange for what you're doing for them." like, give them money to get a drink for you while you solve their problem for you, and to tell them what they want to know, but in exchange, make them document it for you. I think those are a bit much, though..

Hope this helps!
posted by Laen at 3:59 PM on September 12, 2007


Add me to the list of people who are, or have been in this situation before! There's a lot of good advice in here. I hope to try and follow some of it too.Laen summed up some really great methods, which I won't repeat again. ODiV wrote some really nice ways to give feedback to your boss to show that you are "the brain", but you want to share the information so everyone is "the brain".

If people acknowledge that you are going above and beyond to help them with their work, it can feel good to be the office brain. When they take advantage of it and just expect you to find all the information, it totally sucks. I like to help people, but when you know they are asking you because they can't be bothered to look for themselves, it's really frustrating.

You'll need to be careful in how you decide not to answer a question. You don't want to be perceived as the person who willfully withholds information in order to make yourself more valuable to your team or company by being the only person that knows how to do Task A or find Item B.

Making someone wait, even for a few minutes while you finish what you're doing can make a big difference. If they call you, say "I think it's this, but I'm not quite sure, may I confirm this and get back to you?" That buys you time at which point the requester may take the initiative and go see if you're right. Of course, they may not too. At the very least, getting back to someone when *you* wish rather than dropping everything you're doing to help someone else do their job can make you feel a little more control of your day and therefore less resentful of the asker and their interruption.

If someone asks you what took you so long to get back to them, you can tell them "sorry but I had an important client deadline/meeting/task that I really needed to focus on. Hopefully they'll take the hint that you aren't just waiting around to answer their questions - you have your own job to do!

The intent here is not to be rude, malicious or unhelpful, but to manage your requester's expectations.
posted by melissa at 5:57 PM on September 12, 2007


[Sorry. This is a long post. I'm a computer dork with bad social skills, and I've been working on this same problem recently. I assume that for most people actually using social skills is old news, but for me it's new an fascinating.]

To build on what others have said: you can solve this problem and still be super helpful to everyone involved.

Here's how I'm guessing you feel, and I may be projecting a bit. You're worried that you're spending too much time helping other people and not enough on your own job. You don't want to be a jerk or blow people off because you still have to work with them, because you're a nice person who honestly wants to help, and because if one person hits a rough patch it can snowball onto you. You're just going a bit nuts because you get the same questions at all hours, over and over.

You can solve this gracefully and look like the good guy. And you don't need to get anyone's manager involved. Here's what I do.

Step 0. Write things down. People are coming to you for a reason. Part of it is that you're willing to help, and that makes asking you cheaper than figuring it out themselves (or remembering you last answer). Part of it is also probably because you authentically know things they can't find elsewhere. Fixing this is prerequisite for everything else. Put what you know some place other people can find it.

Step 1. Batch up the questions. I don't mind giving answers. In fact, I love teaching and miss it dearly. But interruptions drive me nuts because then I have to context switch. It might only take 10 seconds to answer the question, but then it takes me 10 minutes to put my brain back where it was. So batching works wonders.

I set up an office half hour or hour with each person who has lots of questions for me. During that time my attention is theirs. I go to them. I'm not answering the phone. I'm not answering emails. If other people come by with questions I ask them to come back later. And I never miss these appointments. That way, when I ask someone to wait until batch time they know I'm really going to help them. During these times I seldom answer questions immediately, but rather show people how to get the answer themselves: "I think I saw that on a page on java.com. Have you tried searching for Foo?" You're manipulating them into doing some work. That's fine, since it'll help them answer their own questions. Most people want to be competent and self-sufficient and will respond well to this as long as your helpful and not critical.

I'm also completely up front about my goal: "Hey Bob, I was wondering if you could help me out. I've noticed you've got a lot of questions, and I want to be sure you're getting what you need. But I'm under some time pressure because of Foo. Could we maybe get together every day at 2 and go through your questions then?" You're not promising to answer the questions. You're promising Bob some help getting answers.

If you're dishonest about any part of this, people will pick up on it instantly. But that's not a problem -- you want to help them answer their own questions so they don't have to depend on you. There's nothing to be dishonest about. You don't have to act. I've found that there's so much lying in the workplace, all day, every day, about such inane stuff that if I'm friendly, helpful, and up front with people they respond very well because they don't have to fire up their hidden motive detector. It sounds like a rosy glasses thing, but it works surprisingly well.

Sure, there's some time investment up front, but I've noticed that these recurring meetings get shorter and less frequent pretty quickly.

Step 2. Deal with the exceptions. Some interruptions are urgent and you need to deal with them Right Now. Those are usually obvious, and you never want to be dogmatic about putting them off. But sometimes people just won't wait for their office (half) hour. In that case I'll usually ask someone to wait for me to finish what I'm doing. Making them wait, even for a few minutes, changes the economics of the situation. Suddenly your help isn't nearly free. It has a time cost. And if you do a good job showing people how to answer their questions, it's often cheaper for them to do it themselves.

One thing I do with especially squirrely people who are uncomfortable with the batch process is kind of ironic: I'll supplement the batch by stopping at their desk at a time convenient to me to ask how things are going and answer questions. Again, this takes time. But it isn't something that happens often, and it lets me deal with questions on my clock rather than theirs.

The whole trick, if you can call it that, is to be authentically helpful.
posted by amery at 5:35 PM on September 13, 2007 [3 favorites]


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