Three questions to help busy managers lighten their load while developing their people
As a manager you know there is never a shortage of problems that
need fixing. Consider how many times this occurs in a typical day; someone
knocks on your door with a problem, a complaint, a request, or an idea that
they want your help addressing.
Who should be the first to offer a solution in these typical
types of conversations?
When I ask this of audiences, the room is always quick to
pipe-up with a communal “THEY SHOULD!” My follow-up question is always, “who
usually offers a solution first?” With much less enthusiasm, some of the braver
soles in the audience admit “we do.”
There are very good reasons why managers tend to be the first to
offer solutions and advice to other people’s problems, even if a little too
quickly or a little too often.
For starters having the answers, figuring things out, and
solving problems are precisely the skills that have helped many smart and
accomplished people achieve their success. Not to mention most managers that my
firm works with are genuinely just trying to be helpful.
On the other side are a whole host of workplace frustrations
that leave managers feeling like the only way to survive the day and protect their
energy and sanity is to solve things as quickly as possible and move to the
Do any of the following
scenarios sound familiar?
It feels like people are constantly dumping their problems on you to fix?
It feels like you keep having the same conversations again and again?
It feels like people are continually complaining about problems instead of bringing solutions forward ?
It feels like your job description should also include workplace firefighter, or worse, babysitter?
That to save time and ensure things are done correctly, it feels easier to just do it yourself?
If you find yourself nodding along in agreement to three or more
of the scenarios, chances are, you are at risk of what I call
This is a form of decision fatigue,
which refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual
after an extended period of decision making. The consequence of decision
fatigue may be the tendency to go for takeout over a healthy salad or skip the
gym for a Netflix binge following an intense day of decision making.
Fixer-Fatigue can be thought of as the deteriorating quality of solution-seeking conversations led by people dealing with a high volume of problems.
As a result, many managers stop asking questions and instead find themselves diving directly into fix-it mode, problem-solving and advice-giving.
Whether you want to develop your team to become more
self-reliant problem solvers, or you are tired of other people’s problems
suddenly becoming your problems to fix, there are three questions that when
asked consistently, will help decrease the potential of Fixer-Fatigue.
Take two; someone knocks on your door with a problem, complaint, request or idea. Instead of jumping into solutions, advice and fix-it mode, start by asking the following questions:
Question #1: What have you tried
This may seem like an obvious question but is surprisingly
under-asked. The benefit of opening with this question is that it immediately
starts you from their perspective and establishes a two-way dialogue.
Unfortunately, managers suffering from fixer-fatigue often respond
by stating the most obvious solution. Rarely is it helpful and instead, often
shuts people down.
I have witnessed the most well-intentioned people fall into this
trap (myself included). Liz Wiseman, the author of the New York Times Bestseller:
calls these leaders the “accidental diminishers.” This is because they
accidentally shut down the conversation, the intelligence, and the ideas of
others by taking-over the problem at hand.
The power of starting with the simple “what have you tried so
far?” has a two-fold advantage. First, asking it shows that you respect the
person and their abilities, especially if they are skilled and experienced in
the area they are bringing to you. Secondly, their response establishes a
starting point. This is true even if their answer is, “I haven’t tried
Especially in the latter case, it is critical to resist jumping
to solutions or offering your ideas as it will only reinforce the expectation
that you will fix the problem for them. Instead, look to challenge them to
think about their problem more deeply. Questions could include: What ideas do you
have? What has stopped you from acting on them?
If you consistently have people showing up at your door with the
expectation that you will solve their problem, it should raise a red flag.
Instead of getting angry and judging others for a lack of initiative or
motivation, use it to prompt your curiosity.
Why do people feel like they need permission to make a decision?
Look internally, what might you, as their manager, be doing to promote this
If you habitually fall into the advice trap and default to
solving other people’s problems, you may inadvertently be training people to
drop their problems on your desk.
Question #2: What else would be
helpful for me to understand about this situation?
This is a personal favorite of mine because this question helps
bring to light the periphery information. It also challenges people to think
more broadly and empathetically about their problem and the different
perspectives others may have about the same situation.
Additionally, it helps you avoid the trap of escalating a
problem with the intention of helping someone only to learn additional context
that would have changed your approach or your stance altogether.
People naturally tend to start from their perspective, remembering
and sharing information selectively to help build their side and justify their
actions. Your job is to make doing so more difficult and thereby challenging
them to think more broadly.
Other variations of the question include: What might this
problem look like from the outside?
What would the other side say is the most important thing for us
to understand? Or finally, what else could be contributing to complicate this
By committing yourself to ask this question, and the initiator
to consider their answers, you both get a fuller view of the situation and
ensure neither succumb to confirmation bias or
move forward on too narrow of a view.
Question #3: How are you looking for to move this forward?
This final question puts the accountability directly on the person
bringing the problem. It engages them to think about how they see things moving
forward and what (if any), help they need in the process.
Often this question is phrased as, how can I help? Or, what do
you need from me? As helpful as they
seem, they often initiate unintended consequences. Challenge yourself to frame
the question in a way that doesn’t automatically insinuate that you need to be
involved. If they need your help or support, they will ask. And if you can
support, now you know the best way to offer it.
Surprisingly, even though many managers say they are frustrated
with dealing with the constant barrage of crisis crossing their desks, it can
also be rewarding, especially if you can save the day. Be careful not to react
by rescuing people or interjecting yourself into a solution to make yourself
feel valuable. Instead, refocus on developing people to need you less and
trust themselves more.
Asking these three questions will undoubtedly save you time,
frustration and energy. Not only that, but simultaneously they will ensure you solve
the right problem when necessary, stay involved where needed, and step
back more often.
Besides, people are almost always more motivated to act on their
own ideas versus advice from others, no matter how good your solution is!
How simple, research-backed shifts to the order of your evening could change that for good!
8:00 am: Get to work – Too tired to think.
1:00 pm: Go to a meeting – Too tired to think.
6:00 pm: Make dinner – Too tired to think.
11:00 pm: Go to bed – How do dragons blow out candles?
Sound familiar? This was a post a friend sent me a few months ago with the comment, “Why does this have to be so true?!” Variations of this made the rounds of social media sites simply because it reflects the frustrating reality that so many people deal with when it comes to falling asleep.
It turns out that just because you’ve decided it’s time to sleep, doesn’t mean your brain or body are on the same schedule!
If this is something that affects you, you’re not alone. Studies spanning the last two decades have indicated a steady rise in people, particularly women, having a harder time falling asleep.
This sentiment is shared by many of the clients that come to my company to help them raise their Leadership Vitality Quotient (LVQ). Inevitably, the discussion of sleep and the impact it has on their performance, leadership, and life satisfaction always comes up.
Clients will often say that because of things such as shift work, family commitments, client commitments, or early morning commutes, going to bed earlier or getting up later isn’t an option. This makes falling asleep quickly a priority. Unfortunately for many of us, this just isn’t happening.
While numerous things may delay the onset of sleep, one factor that is undeniably having an impact is our tendency to push all day long in this hyper-driven go-mode. By aiming to squeeze in as much as possible during the day, many people have inadvertently left little time to transition out of driven go-mode and into slowing sleep-mode.
“We get ready for everything. We need to shift our mindset around sleep from something we do to something we get ready to do.”
If you’re thinking, “I’m already too busy, I won’t have time for this,” fear not! It’s not about adding to your day; it is about changing the order of your evening.
With a few small, but intentional adjustments to your evening activities, you can establish a wind-down routine that helps you to both relax, as well as craft the necessary transitionary time to make falling asleep easier.
A simple method that I have been using with clients as well as personally is what I call the 3-2-1 Sleep ‘E’ Routine. The goal of the approach is to create congruence between your desire to sleep and your brain and body’s readiness to sleep. The shift of your evening activities goes like this:
3 hours before bed – Limit Eating and Exercise
2 hours before bed – Limit Emailing
1 hour before bed – Limit Electronics
What does this look like in real life? Let’s say you plan to be in z-land by 10:00 pm, this is how your routine would look.
3 Hours Before Bed (7:00 pm). Wind down exercise and eating.
Starting with exercise, this time allotment allows your elevated heart rate and core temperature, as well as all that energizing adrenaline-driven by your sympathetic nervous system, adequate time to decrease naturally.
There is an abundance of well-researched data that shows exercising early in the morning increases the amount of deep sleep you get the following evening. It is during ‘deep sleep’ that the body repairs itself, and your brain cleans itself up, both of which leave you feeling more rested without sleeping more hours.
If the later evening is the only time you can exercise, consider swapping out your high-energy Spin Class for Yoga. Slower, stretch focused exercise is widely used to calm your mind and body. To fully feel the benefits, incorporate breathing exercises and meditations. Both of which are proven to be powerful sleep-priming enhancers.
Next is eating, especially heavy meals. Your body requires time to metabolize, and getting the majority of this done before bed not only results in a night of much better sleep but also decreases the chance of heartburn and indigestion. Unfortunately after the age of 30, often increases when you lay down following a big meal.
Besides, I can’t be the only one that has the strangest and most vivid dreams when I go to bed with a full stomach!
If a nice warm decaffeinated tea relaxes you into the nighttime mode, try to finish this up within an hour of going to sleep. The later these are consumed, the higher the chance of a required middle-of-the-night bathroom break interrupting your sleep. Not to mention, the more times you wake up, the more often you need to fall back to sleep!
2 Hours Before Bed (8:00 pm). Wind down the work emails.
One of the best ways to help your brain disengage from workplace worries is to have a preset, designated time to stop working. The benefit of having this routine is that it signals to your brain that it can stop working, worrying, and thinking.
But it isn’t just about email; it is about all work. However, a survey I conducted in 2019 revealed that most of the work people do in the evenings involve checking and replying to emails. Nearly 30% of the respondents commented that they rarely work before bed – they keep an eye on email. That is called WORKING!
Even if you disagree with what counts as work, research shows that constantly scanning your email signals to your brain that it needs to function in crisis mode, needing to stay on high-alert for any potential threats (even if there aren’t any). Threat mode and sleep mode are not good bed buddies!
Let’s break this down. Everyone knows that email can be triggering. Who hasn’t gotten a late-night crummy email from a colleague or customer? Even if you’re able to manage your fight-flight system and resist firing back an email, your brain stays hooked long after the email is read. To cope, you usually take one of two approaches. Either you try not to think about it, or you overthink it. Unfortunately, both approaches result in excessive cortisol being dumped into your system making sleep, especially falling asleep, much more difficult.
This constant partial attention not only increases stress and overwhelm, but it also impacts your connection with those most important to you. When you are accessible via email 24/7, it means we are inaccessible to the people around you 24/7. Physical connection via talking and spending time with those you love is both more fulfilling and relaxing, easing you into a healthier nighttime routine.
1 Hour Before Bed (9:00 pm). Wind down electronics.
Now is when you want to start to minimize electronics.
Even with the hour before sleep being potentially the most important block of time, many people take a haphazard approach to calming themselves both psychologically and physiologically during this time.
For most of my clients, decreasing screen time before bed is the hardest adjustment to make, but don’t try to trick yourself into believing that reading the day’s news or political headlines won’t have an impact on your sleep – it absolutely does.
Just like the work email, news, and other social media all have the potential to trigger the emotional neural networks in your brain and prompting the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. When we have more cortisol, then melatonin (that sleep-inducing hormone) in our system, it chemically communicates to our brain and body to wake-up and take action, counter to your sleep goal!
In this final hour, helping your brain to disconnect from the day and settle down should be a priority. Spend this time relaxing with family, reading a good fiction novel, listening to an audiobook or Podcast, or doing some reflective journaling. It is critical to understand that the thinking brain fatigues, and the constant stimulation of scrolling social media tends to overstimulate the brain, essentially making it over-tired and unable to calm down and settle into sleep.
Before deciding what will or won’t work for you, test and tweak each step to suit you best. The calming power in routines comes from the replication of them. It takes time to get your brain, body, and behaviors on a new schedule.
The 3-2-1 Sleep Ease Routine works with your brain and body’s natural processes so that when the light goes off, sleep is not far behind!
Just because you are eager to unplug doesn’t mean others feel the same.
It’s vacation season! In anticipation you’ve blocked the time off in your calendar, met with colleagues to ensure your work is covered while away and set an informative out-of-office message. You are mentally prepared to put the phone down and leave work (and associated devices), behind for the week. A “digital detox” awaits you.
Fast forward a couple of days. Settling into vacation mode, you sip your morning coffee on the cottage dock when suddenly one of your vacation mates starts tapping away on their phone. Maybe it’s your spouse murmuring in frustration as they check their work email, a friend scrolling through Instagram insisting you check out someone’s latest post, a sibling asking you to take, and then retake, the perfectly framed “Zen mode” shot for a social media post.
Regardless of the distraction, it feels like your digital detox is contaminated before it even started, work anxiety is top of mind and relaxation-mode quickly evaporates. The response is typically to either give-up on your unplugged vacation or launch into the same arguments that only result in more arguments; neither being desirable or helpful.
First off, unless those device users are your kids (parents, you can lay down the law), you aren’t at work and you can’t ban people from using their phone or staying connected to work no matter how strong your preference or how good your intentions.
Outside of the legitimate reasons for people staying connected, such as being able to respond to emergencies, most phone use is largely optional. Here are some strategies to preserve your relaxation (and sanity) on vacation while also respecting others preferences.
1) Have a pre-vacation conversation to share your hopes and expectations.
Don’t expect people to read your mind or have the same expectations. You must communicate your vision, your hopes, and your requests with your vacation companions. Remember, a conversation is a two-way dialogue so ensure to ask for, and consider, their expectations also. Unless you are vacationing alone, compromise is required. Together you can set parameters and agreements. Examples could include:
Choosing one meal a day that is a phone-free zone.
Social media posting is done after vacation.
Work check-ins are done in the morning with laptops put away in a case throughout the day.
Most people tend to be very open to such requests and simply haven’t thought through how to loosen their grip on their devices or how their phone use impacts others. Those that don’t want to make such commitments have a right to say and, in my experience, the conversation still helps them to reflect on their relationship to their devices, work, vacations, and loved ones.
2) Stop aiming for the perfect vacation.
Some of us put such high expectations on vacations that we create a continuous cycle of stress. We work ourselves to the edge of burnout and then we want our vacation to be the perfect restorative antidote.
The biggest challenge with hoping for the perfect device-free, work-free vacation is that nothing ever goes perfectly! Adding this all-or-nothing thinking will inevitably leave you disappointed and overly focused on the negative (like when you stewed all morning about the person taking selfies while you attempted to enjoy the morning sunrise). The natural consequence of this preoccupation includes missing the many positive moments that followed that morning.
Remember, people aren’t using their devices to upset you, they are doing it for themselves; for their comfort, their enjoyment or out of habit. Let them imperfectly “do them” and you imperfectly “do you.” Drop the perfectionist thinking and instead tap into your feelings of gratitude and appreciation of the many beautiful experiences instead.
3) Reframe the frustration as an opportunity to practice letting go.
The reality is you will see people on their phones everywhere you go. Expect that you will feel triggered when others are on their devices. Know that you will feel the wave of worry as you think about the work piling up in your absence. The good news is that vacation time provides a little more headspace to use these moments of frustration as opportunities to practice letting go.
Our brain loves to control things and when things aren’t going the way we’d like we tend to default into blame-mode (everyone is ruining my vacation), getting us tangled up in factors outside of our control. In this case, other people’s actions. A simple approach to managing this stress includes slowing down and taking a deep breath when your vacation mate picks up their phone. Next, reflect on two simple perspectives-giving questions; what can you control? What is outside of your control?
What you can’t control: OTHER PEOPLE!
If they abide by the established parameters.
If they share your dedication to going device-free.
If they change their behavior.
What you can control: YOU!
You can have a conversation about device use before and during vacation.
You can practice setting realistic expectations for yourself and others and learn to focus on the positives as you go with the imperfect flow.
You can put a “letting go” plan in place to manage the frustration when you are triggered by other people’s device use.
Vacation is a wonderful opportunity to increase your Life and Leadership Vitality Quotient (LVQ). Enjoy it and all its imperfections while you practice focusing on the controllable and letting go of the rest. When you head back to work you can plug back in with a renewed sense of you and have a few additional strategies to extend vacation mode!
After a particularly exhausting Friday which consisted of back-to-back meetings, I resentfully looked at the following week only to realize a glaringly obvious problem—it was just as busy.
The most frustrating part of my predicament was that I was following the sage productivity advice. Looking at my calendar, you would see that it was beautifully color-coded with blocks for meetings, exercise, design/writing, email-checking, personal appointments, coaching calls, reflection, and reminders, all snuggly nestled around my travel and speaking schedule.
It was very pretty to look at, unfortunately, I still felt like I was chasing the carrot I could never catch as the fulfilling parts of life felt just out of reach.
What was clear was that although spots in my calendar were filled up with priorities, there was no space in my brain or energy in my body to effectively carry them all out. Instead I just felt perpetually overscheduled and fried by the end of the week.
At around the same time, my speaking schedule was getting busier, so I invested in an online scheduling platform to work with my calendar and automate my bookings and meetings. To begin using the platform, I had to set specific scheduling parameters such as when my workday began, how long meetings would run, or how many meetings a day.
Coming up with these guidelines was easy as I had been trying to follow these for the past year. The challenge was that I’d had little sustained success. I remember thinking, “This is exactly what I need: a system to make the decision for me!”
A few of my scheduling boundaries included:
· A pre-set maximum number of meetings a day
· 40-minutes blocked for lunch
· Meetings would default to 45-minutes versus the standard 60-minutes
· A 15-minute buffer between meetings
As a researcher, I monitored the changes, charting the day-by-day impact (yes, I love data and am a geek for trends). Immediately, I noticed an amazing difference throughout each day.
Adding a time buffer between meetings gave me the opportunity to shake off the emotions from the previous meeting and mentally reset for the next one. I found myself standing up and moving around more between appointments leaving me less exhausted at the end of the day.
At lunch, I started getting outside more, sitting, walking and just enjoying my lunch away from my desk.
The most notable change was that I now had the energy to start the day, and this energy was sustained until the end of the day. It wasn’t just physical energy, which was noticeable, but I also felt this high-quality mental energy that enabled me to carry out more focused work. I found myself more contemplative in how my “to-do’s” aligned with my business strategy. I was less distracted and more able to work on one thing at a time and finish it!
Within days, my family noticed the difference, too—I was more present and more disciplined at shutting off work. I was more patient, and I laughed more. The weekends stopped being a reprieve to catch up and became a time to actively recharge and recover by exploring new things such as learning to box and connecting with friends and family more.
And yet, with all these positive changes, about two months in, I found myself trying to override the system, attempting to squeeze in more meetings. People would request meetings and, even though I’d reached the maximum allotment for the day, I’d just squeeze them in, anyway!
Now, it may not be obvious, but I’m a logical and self-aware person. I realized that no one else would be checking my calendar and scolding me if I overrode it, so I had to ask myself, Why would I do this?
Upon reflection, I realized that there were a few areas this automated platform didn’t address. It didn’t manage my driving emotions not to disappoint. Nor did it manage my deeply ingrained belief that I should give 110% at work every day. Finally, it did not address my shear hubris that if I was feeling so good, I could or should do more.
Yet, as I started squeezing more in, my energy started leaking out and the benefits quickly dissipated. I had successfully found my tipping point, and it became clear that I needed more personal management before I could leverage the automated management. I practiced a ritual that I use when working with clients that forced me to slow down, shift out of “busy mode” and consider the impact of my choices.
When I feel I need to override the system here is the 1-minute habit I now practice:
1. I take a moment to fully stop.
Fingersoff the keyboard. If in a conversation, I stop myself from automatically accepting meetings and say I will check my schedule and get back to the person.
2. I refocus by checking-in with compassion for myself.
I ask myself, What am I feeling right now? I take a few deep breaths and tap into my self-compassion by acknowledging that things are difficult and that I feel pulled in many directions.
3. I then challenge my reality with curiosity.
Why would I choose to be less effective today? This question forces me to think instead of getting swept away in the feelings that contribute to short-sighted decisions.
4. Finally, I shift my thinking out to the world.
Iask myself, What is the value and consequence to saying “yes”? This question realigns me with my values and, just as important, the impact my choices will have on others, before moving outside my boundaries.
Yes, some days require me to go over my allotted number of meetings. Sometimes, I must book a lunch meeting due to a client’s schedule. However, the value of boundaries is that they give you the space to work within.
Now, whether automated or not, my schedule serves as a great reminder to not let the busyness of the moment override my vision of my future. But only my choices will ensure it!
Oh yes, that is what my perpetually optimistic superwoman brain has historically had me believing when things were going well and I’m firing on all cylinders. The times when I am working on a project that I love, or when I am being challenged to learn something new, and especially when I am juggling multiple opportunities. During those periods if you suggested that I consider taking a break, slowing things down, setting more realistic expectations, my responses previously were:
Time? I manage it!
Energy? Got lots of it!
To-Dos? Crossing them off!
Sleep? Who needs it!
That is until the mere mortal Superwoman
loses her powers and just isn’t that super anymore.
During one of my power-drained days when I
was running on fumes, I decided to look up the story of superwoman.
Superwoman was first introduced in 1947. Lois Lane had a dream that she became
superwoman after she got a blood transfusion from Superman. However, her powers were drainable and could
only last for 24 hours.
Granted, the blood transfusion concept; not
so good. Yet I couldn’t ignore the
symbolism in the story.
The idea of having superhuman strengths and powers were just a dream.
The powers were not eternally infinite – they were more quickly drained by over-use and within a certain period were gone until adequate recharging.
That day as I sat on the couch, tired,
ineffective and in low spirits, I was reminded that I am not superwoman and no
amount of wishing will make it so. No
one has superhuman strengths because we are HUMAN and that includes me. I am not ‘less’ of a person if I can’t find
an extra 5 hours in a day, or if I need to get more than 5 hours of sleep or if
I can’t cross off every “to-do,” every day.
And for the days that I do seem to pull off
the impossible superwoman feats, I need to remember it is an expectation, not
the rule and all energy is finite. If I
keep in the mode of relentless pursuit of trying to do it all, I drain my
powers and there are consequences.
It is funny how I often I’ve thought of
Superwoman as a symbol of strength, but maybe I can use her as a reminder of my
humanness. To remind me to accept my
limitations and acknowledge them – not to be constrained by them or defined by
them, but to have compassion for the fact that I have them.
To know my energy limits is a strength and
to restore my energy is a responsibility – that knowledge is my superpower.