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 next.
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 Fixer-Fatigue.
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 so far?
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: Multipliers, 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 anything.”
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 behavior?
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 situation?
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!