Whose Problem Is It, After All?


Jonathan was under a deadline. He needed to get a big project reformatted, which his employee, Henry was supposed to have done already, but it wasn’t quite right. As Jonathan went home the night before the project was due, he thought to himself, “I’ll just do it myself. I can probably do a better job anyway.” So he did, and the project came off swimmingly. In the review meeting though, Henry had that sinking feeling again, and thought, “Why do I ever bother! Jonathan is going to re-do my work anyway. Amidst the day-to-day work in front of them, they never spoke of this incident again, and Henry found another job within a few months.
Have you ever been Jonathan? Most leaders I know and work with are terrific problem-solvers. They were promoted in large part because of that skill. Unfortunately, as many move up the managerial food chain, they continue to solve problems, both theirs and those of their employees. This habit has two adverse effects. First of all, it keeps them stuck helicoptering in to fix things when they should be thinking about more complex and longer term issue. Secondly, for the people who work for them, it is disempowering and demoralizing. Why should someone bring their best work to work everyday when their manager is going to jump to the rescue and fix every problem they encounter and every mistake they make?
The thing is, we learn from doing it wrong. Have you every watched a baby learn to walk? They do not magically go from horizontal to vertical movement just because they decide to one day. They experiment. And then fail. Up they go, with wobbly legs, only to crash down again and again, until eventually after literally hundreds of experiments, they get it and they walk. Why then, at work, do we expect our employees to do it perfectly, or the way we would, the first time they try? And when we fix problems for employees, the learning process is interrupted. They fail, we fix it, and the next time they face a similar problem, they come to us for help.
The role of managers is to help employees use their own creativity, discretion and judgment to solve most of their problems without us. To do this, we have to let them feel the weight of the problem and work our way through it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for heroics. If an employee is about to make a huge mistake that costs lives or huge amounts of money we must interfere and fix first and debrief later. But most of the time, the missteps and small problems they make can be used as key learning.
For example, when Mary, a nurse, was asked to count inventory in her hospital unit, she failed to count the specific model of a particular piece of equipment and just tallied the total. When her boss discovered the error, she with empathy and care said to Mary, “Oh bummer! We actually need the specific item count. How do you want to tackle it from here?” Mary had to work overtime but she got it right. Or consider Aaron, who realized at the end of the week that he made a large error in a customer’s order for lumber delivery. Horrified he went to his boss, who said, “These things happen and I know it feels awful. It is okay, but we will need to call the customer and make it right. Do you want to call on your own or would you like me to listen in and help you craft the message?”
In both of these instances, the manager resisted the urge to jump in with their cape and badge and save the day. Instead, they expressed empathy for the employee and allowed the remedy to land squarely on the employee themselves, resulting in accountability and learning.
Too often, managers are overly focused on the work itself, not the key role they play in coaching and supporting the employees who work for them in getting the work executed well. Although it may feel slower at first to coach employees towards solving their own problems, in the long run it creates ownership and learning that over time has a much longer impact.
If Jonathan in the earlier example had noticed the poor quality from Henry and had said to him, “Henry I know you worked hard on this, but it is just not quite right yet. I’d like to see it refined slightly before the deadline tomorrow (with specifics.) I look forward to seeing your next iteration!”
When we believe that our employees can and want to solve their own problems, we begin to create space for them to do just that, serving as developmental coaches not superheroes.
Moe Carrick is Principal and Founder of Moementum, Inc., a Certified BCorp Consultancy focused on culture, leadership and teams. Her book, FIT Matters: How to Love Your Job is an Amazon Bestseller.


About Author

Leave A Reply