How to help your staff solve their own problems

03.21.14 thumb coxcoffeeTOM COX | OB BLOGGER

During a recent talk to HR Directors, I asked if they saw leaders trying to solve every problem, instead of delegating to and empowering staff. Every head nodded. Every single one.

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Here’s how to help your staff solve their own problems.

At a recent talk to HR Directors, I asked if they saw leaders trying to solve every problem, instead of delegating to and empowering staff.

Every head nodded. Every single one.

Mine too. In fact, I see leaders (at every level) clustering at the extremes — they either take over problems, or simply abandon staff to “figure it out” for themselves (properly known as “abdication”).

03.21.14 coxcoffeeHow to Delegate Problem-Solving

Delegation lies between these extremes. Most leaders haven’t been taught how to delegate. Here’s the process I teach. You should make sure every manager and supervisor who reports to you is following this method — or a better one.

First, get your arms around the problem.

A problem usually arrives in the form of a complaint. This can be “we don’t like the coffee” or “Joe showed up for work drunk” or “we lack money to finish the expansion that would earn us more money.”

And there are two common emotional reactions leaders have to a complaint, depending on whether they’re in Relating mode or Requiring mode.

Relaters want the complaint to go away by fixing the problem or making the complainer feel better. They’ll say things like “let me help you” or “I’ll fix that for you.”

Requirers want to crush the complainer, or make them be quiet. They’ll say things like “don’t whine” or “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” (Which is stupid, but common. I used to say it, and cringe now to recall it.)

You want to be in a third mode – the Empowering mode.

When you are in Empowering mode, you treat reports of problems with gentle, open-minded skepticism. You will want to say things like:

“Tell me more about the problem.”
“Suppose we fixed this. Would it be worth the effort?”
“Is there anyone around us whose job description involves fixing problems like this?”
“If our organization were functioning correctly, who would naturally fix this sort of thing?”
NOTE: If your answer to either of these last two questions is “me” – stop using this process and simply go fix it.

Example: a manager tells you “the staff doesn’t like the coffee.”

Second, Move from Complaint to Problem Statement

Stay in Empowering mode. Shift the other person from merely complaining, to a more constructive mindset.

It is not enough to tell the employee to “bring me solutions.”

Ask questions like:

“If this were fixed, what would we see?”
“What does the ideal end state look like?”
“What are some of the forces that will work against change?”
“What are some of the resource and other constraints, we will have to deal with?”
“Who needs to be involved in this conversation?”
Have the complaining person write that up as a good problem statement.

Example: “How can we get coffee that most people mostly like, while staying within budget, and without spending a lot of time on it?”

Remember to put a fence around this problem-solving effort. You don’t want your subordinate spending 100 hours solving a $10 problem. So remember to ask this as well:

“How much time and money do you think we should spend on solving this problem?”

Get agreement on an amount, and add that as a budget of time and money for this mini project.

Third, Start to Generate Solutions.

In this phase, for a larger issue, you can use it as an opportunity to help your subordinate build their own independent network of contacts in your organization.

In the prior step you had them list out the people they need to involve in the conversation building toward the solution. Now you edit it.

Then have your subordinate contact them.

Warning: set boundaries. Sometimes subordinates who are quality-conscious will devote 20 times more work effort into a problem than is justified. Don’t let that sneak up on you. (You don’t want a simple get-better-coffee issue to turn into a multi-departmental standing committee.)

Ask “How much clock time and how many dollars is it worth to us to resolve this?” Listen closely to their answer, then give them your own opinion. This way you help them start to think in more strategic terms.

Now your subordinate can contact the relevant people and work with them — within limits — to generate some candidate solutions.

Example: “The coffee issue will be addressed by the people who drink coffee, who sign up to participate. I’ll leave a sign-up sheet on a clipboard at the coffee machine. We’ll work on it no more than 20 minutes at a time, once a week.”

Think a tiny problem like this doesn’t deserve a project charter? Maybe — but how will your people get good at big projects if they don’t practice on small ones?

Fourth, Agree on Criteria.

Ask your subordinate to answer:

What makes a good solution good?
How should it be judged?
Help her develop a solid list of criteria.

Fifth, Rank the Solutions.

In this phase, rate and rank the solutions using the criteria. This should be as easy as it sounds.

By starting well, you’ll find you’ve both saved yourself time and made your subordinate more effective at working with you on problems.

Tom Cox blogs on leadership for Oregon Business.