Leaders Should Stop Solving Problems

 In Articles, strategy

You’ve seen it, but chances are, you couldn’t stop it from happening. At a team meeting, a problem is raised, and the boss—trying to be helpful, or trying to be the hero, or simply because he thinks he’s supposed to—takes it on as his problem to solve. 

But…he doesn’t really understand the problem, much less how to fix it. And when he does try to fix it, the solution often doesn’t hit the mark. Or worse, the solution causes new problems that didn’t exist before. 

Maybe this boss is you, or someone you’ve worked with (I love solving problems, so I’m sure I’m guilty of this…) 

Have you seen examples like the following? 

●      Jim, division president at a software firm, saw his VP of sales and his VP of marketing feuding over when some new demos would be ready to share with customers. He stepped in to settle the disagreement, outsourcing demo production to speed up the process. Sales ended up with bad demos, and marketing lost one of their best employees, when her favorite project was taken away from her.   

●      Amy, a top rainmaker, mentioned to her sales manager that it would be nice if sales people could view their customer’s trouble tickets within the CRM system. Her sales manager took it on as a project, and two years and $300,000 later, the feature was implemented. Unfortunately, it was never used, because in the meantime Amy and her colleagues on the service team had collaborated to come up with a simple, no-cost work around that met their needs completely.

 ●      Jamie, technical support engineer with an industrial pump manufacturer, noticed that customers had to wait 2-3 months for custom pumps to be delivered. She suggested a modular design that could be configured in a day, and she volunteered to flesh the idea out with the manufacturing team. Her boss, sensing what a break-through the modular pump could be, declined her offer, and took the project on as his own. Unfortunately, other priorities took precedence, so the idea never came to fruition…until a competitor introduced it and gained 20 points of market share. 

In each of these examples, the leader robbed the employees of the opportunity to solve the problem themselves. What happens when you do this? You end up with bad solutions, stagnant talent development, unmotivated employees, and wasted resources and time. It often leads to your best talent deciding to go elsewhere. 

In my previous article, Stop Lying to Your Employees, I made the case that so many “placebo” systems within organizations are designed to give employees the illusion of control, without actually giving them control. This creates a culture in which employees are made to feel like followers whose job it is to wait for leaders to tell them what to do.

Solving employee problems for them, instead of letting them solve problems for themselves, is another form of de-powering employees, which trains employees to become helpless and passive. 

On the other hand, asking employees to solve their own problems leads not only to more motivated, capable employees, it also leads to far greater agility in adapting to today’s fast-changing business environment. 

Much has been written about how “command and control” governance models aren’t nimble enough for today’s business world, but that hasn’t stopped many leaders from continuing to think that it is their job to solve problems.

In contrast, when Alan Mulally was running Ford, he pushed his leadership team to first admit when they had a problem, and second to find the person or people within the company that had the solution. It is folly, Mulally suggested, to sit at the top of a large organization and think you have the best solution to each challenge.

If you are a leader (and all of us are, in one form or another), here are seven things you can do to stop solving problems yourself: 

1.   When an employee or team comes to you with a problem, innovation idea or dispute, ask for their ideas about how to fix, develop or resolve it. Ask if they have next steps in mind, and if they would be willing to drive the process. 

2.   If they do agree to drive the process, follow up, and hold them accountable. Shine a light on their progress, even if that progress is slower or less substantial than you had hoped. Recognize even small signs of progress. 

3.   If you witness a disagreement between two employees, or between two groups that report to you, instead of suggesting “the answer,” or acting as a tie-breaker, insist that they resolve the dispute themselves. 

4.   Be available to support employees’ problem-solving efforts. If they need funding, help them get it. If they need an introduction to someone in another department, help them make that connection. If they are having trouble coming to an agreement with another employee, suggest a process they might use to break the stalemate. 

5.   Find ways to mix diverse groups of employees together, and challenge them to solve some of your company’s most vexing problems. Encourage them to come up with solutions that they can implement on their own, or with minimal help. You’ll be surprised what they come up with. 

6.   If employees have taken on a difficult task, provide them with the time and aircover to complete it. For example, let them opt-out of routine meetings, or loosen their financial targets, instead putting the focus on “learning objectives” 

7.   Ask lots of questions. Admit ignorance. Encourage others to do the same. 

There is remarkable power in letting people solve their own problems. Harness this power, and you’ll be faster and more adaptable as a company, and a magnet for top talent. 

How have you seen this work in your organization? 

Amanda Setili is president of strategy consulting firm Setili & Associates. She is author of Fearless Growth: The New Rules to Stay Competitive, Foster Innovation, and Dominate Your Markets, and The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act On Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World. 

For more strategies, videos and free materials, please visit www.setili.com. Or, contact Amanda to discuss how she works with companies to improve profits, performance and growth.

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