My boss helped me traverse this fine line very well. I used to walk into his office 6 to 10 times a day for the first 3 months of my employment in my current company. He is an incredibly patient and generous and kind man. NEVER had an attitude with me, never acted like I am being a bother.
But 10 times a day, as you could tell, is a bit much. After the first 3 months, he called me in for my 3 month review. We discussed my strong side and my weak side. You know, the usual stuff. He then said that the only thing he has a problem with me was that I go to him too many times in a day. To be clear, asking someone a lot of questions is different than going to that person, physically, too many times.
He suggested I put down an hour or hour and a half every day before lunch. In that 1.5 hour meeting, I write down ALL my questions. I sit with him and ask him every question I have. This way, he expects me only once every day. For an hour every day, but only once. This helps him manage his own time and his own projects easier.
As you said, it is expected of you to ask questions. But if you feel like you're being a bother, understand that you're being a bother by walking up to them 10 times a day, not asking them 10 questions. Walk up to them once or twice a day with as many questions as you want and people tend to not be bothered by that.
If you feel like you're annoying someone with your questions, this is what I'd suggest:
- Sit down with your mentor and ask them if they have a preferred time of the day they'd like to answer your questions.
- Schedule a time, for every day, with the mentor. Make it known that you will be there from 10 to 11 in the morning (for instance) Monday to Friday every day till you're comfortable with your new position.
- Make it known that you're coming in with questions. A lot of questions. And I mean, actually tell them that you are. Tell them that you are still trying to get comfortable in your new position and you'd rather not bother them 10 times a day, so you'd rather do it once a day to answer ALL your questions.
This will definitely be easier on you and your mentor.
Also, to specifically answer your question,
how can I tell whether or not they feel I'm relying too heavily on them?
Right before you ask your question, think about whether you've asked them this question already. Changing a few words around in a question might make it seem like a completely new question to someone new, but to the mentor, it is the same. The question has been answered, according to them. So analyze your question to see if it was in some way or the other answered by them.
After your analysis, if you think your question is valid and has to be asked, but still feel like you're being annoying, start your questions with one of the following:
- I'm sorry if I've already asked you this but....
- I know you already explained this to me, but I am having a hard time understanding this...
- I'm really sorry if I'm asking too many questions, but I just need a little help understanding this...
As you say all those, observe their reaction. Do they just nod? Do they reject your apology? Do they reject your assumption?
- If they are just nodding, they are getting kind of annoyed. Leave after you've asked that question. Come back tomorrow.
- If they're rejecting your apology (by that I mean, they express disinterest in answering your question right this moment), leave. They've basically told you that they'd rather not deal with you right this moment.
- If they reject your assumption (by that I mean, they are telling you something in the lines of "Oh no not at all, ask all the questions you'd like answered"), proceed with your question. Proceed with the question after. Once done, SINCERELY thank them for their time with you. Show them how much you appreciate their patience with you. Even if they are annoyed with you, your gratitude will negate that.
Also, as an addition, try asking broad questions rather than a question about one very specific thing. For instance, Instead of asking
how does the shipping department know what PO needs to be picked?
how does the shipping department work?
This achieves two things:
- It will answer one or more of your questions.
- This will project the image of you trying to learn the process as a whole rather than you expecting them to spoon-feed everything to you.
I hope this helps.