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Edelman: When Your Biggest Problem - Is You

As leaders and managers, we are entrusted with the important mission of overseeing our team(s) as well as the profitable and efficient stewardship of our business (or a portion of the business). However, too often, our mission becomes misaligned as we help our team members out by solving their problems for them rather than letting them figure things out on their own.

While it is great to feel needed and knowledgeable, we do a disservice to our people and to our businesses if we don’t focus specifically on making our employees 'Problem Solvers.'

While easy to say, it is most definitely more difficult to do and here are a few pointers that may prove beneficial.

Diversity in the workplace
Diversity in the workplace

1. Something You Can Do - Create A Speak-Up Environment – If a team member believes that every time they introduce a new idea; they must go through an overly burdensome protocol or that they are going to get slapped if it is not perfect, you are setting the stage for problem solving failure. Instead, develop an environment that fosters innovation and allows people to explore some alternative options without always requiring a short-leashed approval.

Herb Kelleher, founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines states “Creating an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable speaking their minds without running the risk of offending people is enormously important. In order to accomplish this, make them feel like part of the family. You want people to feel free to have a dinner-table conversation; some people are like the quiet, reclusive kid who doesn’t say much in the classroom but babbles at dinner.” My new friends at Microsoft , Ross Smith and Mark Hanson, have pushed this envelope aggressively by pursuing a trust based working environment. As a result, productivity has increased substantially and less attrition is taking place. Check out my previous post on this for more information on their efforts.

2. Something They Can Do - Problem Solving Techniques – Assuming people feel comfortable expressing themselves, help them to figure out key problem solving skills. For example, guide them to identify one or more solutions to a problem before coming to you with questions.

Additionally and more importantly, ask them to identify the merits and challenges) with each solution. As appropriate, they can research these recommendations and vet them with others. This forces them into a “critical thinking” state as they look to solve problems on their own. Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society shares “The key is there needs to be an ability in a given time period between ideation, conceptualization and articulation of where you’re going in the business strategy; to get there and to get results.” Give your team members this ability and they will be well-prepared to solve problems on their own more effectively.

3. Something You Can Do - Excuse Yourself From The Answer Equation – The easiest, most controllable and comfortable situation for most of us is to help our team members solve their problems for them when they approach us. But look what that does…we become the brains for the more complex issues and don’t teach to solve on their own. I’m not advocating that you don’t support your people; simply that you take the somewhat uncomfortable step to ask them to figure out the problem on their own rather than figuring it out for them. This can manifest itself in a few ways.

First, don’t accept a discussion unless your team member has identified at least X solutions to a problem with a preferred recommendation. Second, if you are unhappy with the results, don’t immediately correct it for them. Provide some additional thoughts that will push them to think on their own. Third, sometimes it is OK to make yourself a little less available to see how they survive without the crutch of your problem solving skills. A seminal experience in my education was with Professor Andrew Downie who taught my Literature and Poetry class; a class that I was admittedly less than thrilled about when it started.

The short story is that I put little effort into the class and when I submitted my first few papers they were mediocre at best. Professor Downie could have accepted by work and moved on but he didn’t. Instead, he pushed me to think more critically and solve the problems that existed in my writing. His constructive feedback, coupled with his push to have me solve my own problems rather than him giving me the answers. I ended the class with an A and his message still continues to resonate today.

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The reality is that if our people must continually come to us for answers; we’re ultimately creating more problems rather than problem solvers. Give them the tools to help themselves and your begin building an army of capable problem solvers.

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Russ Edelman is President & CEO of Corridor Consulting and founder of Nice Guy Strategies, LLC (NGS) and the author of “Nice Guys Can Get The Corner Office: Eight Strategies for Winning in Business Without Being a Jerk.”
Comments? Send them to Russe@niceguystrategies.com