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Bring It! March 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My people bring me their problems.  If you are in a leadership role, I’m guessing that your people bring you their problems, too.  That seems natural.  After all, we got to where we are by solving problems.  We should be pretty good at this by now; it’s what we get paid to do.

Or is it?  While solving the problems that arrive is certainly helping our organization, it is not helping the person who brought the problem.  All things considered, solving the problem is actually harming the person who has come knocking on your door.

From the employee’s perspective, pushing a problem up the ladder is the easy way out.  By definition, the boss will pick the solution that suits him or her, so you can’t lose brownie points by presenting the wrong answer.  It saves you a lot of time trying to figure out the right answer, which is efficient.  And you might learn something when you see how the boss would solve things.

Lesser leaders love it when people bring them problems to solve.  It strokes their ego to know that they are the only one who can save the day.  They get to show off their knowledge and skills when they provide the answer.  They get to feel like they have taught a valuable lesson to the employee.

Better leaders know better.  Our job as leaders is to teach and guide our employees to find the solutions on their own.  The process of considering and rejecting alternatives is crucial to mentoring people to become better at what they do.  Much like giving a man a fish instead of teaching him to fish, the issue is resolved but nothing is gained.

As a leader, this is really hard to do.  Our natural inclination is to solve the problem and move on.  It is contrary to our nature to push the problem back to the employee and see what they might do.  But this is exactly what we must do, every time this happens.

My team learned long ago that I expect them to come to me with a problem and a solution.  With a proposed solution on the table, we can debate the merits, consider alternatives, and arrive at the right answer together.  Hopefully, they learn something as we find that answer.

Invariably, when someone brings me a problem, my first question to them is, “What do you think we should do?”  If they can’t answer, they need to go away and come back when they have a proposal to consider.

Note that this advice applies to you when you go to your boss: bring the problem and your solution.  At our level, you are seeking consensus on your approach, not a quick answer to hard problems.  Your boss may able to provide political advice and other intangible support; you need to bring the real answer.

Practice what your preach and apply this rule consistently. Over time, your people will become better problem-solvers without being dependent on you for all the answers.  Then you will have achieved your real goal as a leader: mentoring your people to be better than you at everything they do, and then simply getting out of their way.

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Comments»

1. Joe Williams - March 23, 2009

Nice post, Chuck. I agree completely: “What do you recommend?” is the first question I ask when my team members bring a problem to me. Not only does it cause them to work harder, it lets them know that I trust them at all levels.

2. Susan Mazza - March 23, 2009

Makes me think of the story of the butterfly – help it out of it’s cocoon and you prevent it from gaining the strength it needs to be able to fly.

Excellent point about trust Joe.

I also think that anyone who manages people who thinks they actually know or should know all the answers has manifested the Peter Principle (i.e., they have risen to their own level of incompetence).

3. Chuck Musciano - March 23, 2009

Joe, your point about trust is an important one. We often trust our people, but don’t do a good job of letting them know that, either explicitly or implicitly.

Susan, there’s an old adage that “A” people hire other “A” people. “B” people hire “C” people. If you are hiring “A” people, you just want to stand back and get out of their way.

4. prissyperfection - March 23, 2009

Your post reminded me of the “monkey game”. People come to you with a problem or a “monkey”. Their goal is to leave the “monkey” with you, thus, freeing themselves of it.

The inexperienced or unwise leader will take all of the monkeys until his/her office is full of them. And everyone else walks away cool. Until the leader realizes that the game works against everyone. The pressure on the leader becomes great enough for him/her to begin to resent the position s/he is in. And the others come to feel diminished.

To Joe’s point, trust is indeed important. So, in my view, is conveying the message that those who bring problems to you are
as capable of solving them as you are, even if at that red hot moment, they don’t believe it themselves.

5. Big Stretches « The Effective CIO - April 1, 2009

[…] go beyond their comfort zone?  This is incredibly hard to do.  A few posts back, I talked about letting people solve their own problems, and that is hard enough for some leaders.  Now we’re talking about letting people take on […]

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[…] you could resolve it yourself, it should have shown up in the Progress section.)  As I’ve noted previously, for each problem you present, be prepared to offer a potential solution.  Drive the discussion to […]


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