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3 tips for empowering employees to solve their own problems

By knowing when to coach and when to manage, and asking the right questions, you may be able to help staff members put out their own fires.

As managers, it’s easy to see our role as resident problem solver. In fact, many contemporary management articles will tell you that it is the manager’s job to remove the obstacles keeping your employees from being successful. I agree with this insofar as it means helping your staff work to eliminate those obstacles. What it does not mean is that it’s your job to solve all of your employees’ problems.

Once a staff person starts seeing you as the person they can dump their problem on and walk away knowing it will be handled, guess what will happen the moment that person runs into another roadblock? Employees learn with astonishing rapidity that they only need to make a mention of some annoyance, and, voila – it’s your problem now.

For busy managers on the receiving end of these issues, it can be entirely too easy to rely on your power and authority to continually put out the fires. In fact, many managers complain of not having time for things like checking in with staff, writing evaluations and team building--in essence, managing their employees--because of all of the time spent putting out fires.

If you’ve found yourself the recipient of more than a few of these ‘fly by’ complaints, or are hearing employees sounding powerless when they bring you their problems, it can be far more beneficial to both of you to help them help themselves.

Know when to be a coach vs. a manager

Managing is about making decisions, delegating responsibility and following up for accountability. Coaching is about asking questions, exploring options and providing feedback. Instead of taking control, deciding the solution and ensuring it’s implemented, try doing more listening than talking, and helping the employee think through the problem and possible solutions.

Ask what specifically they’d like to see changed

One good coaching question is to ask what the employee actually wants. It’s easy for someone to point out what’s wrong. It takes more time and effort to think about what realistically could improve a situation. Sure, people do need to vent sometimes. But as a rule, it’s not helpful to allow staff to dump their issues out and walk away knowing you will now spend hours trying to solve them. Ask them to think about what specifically they’d like to see happen. Let them come back to you later if they’re not sure.

Ask what one thing they can do right now to move towards what they want

Often people have a hard time seeing how they might be contributing to the problem. This could be as simple as the fact that they haven’t brought it directly (and respectfully!) to the person they have an issue with. Getting someone to see their role in the problem is the first step in them realizing they have some agency in figuring out what they can do differently to change the outcome.

There are always going to be situations where it’s appropriate and necessary for the manager to intervene and take charge. But for all others, it helps to start developing a track record with your staff of not taking what isn’t yours, and instead starting to build on employees’ skills. Though it can be uncomfortable for employees to take ownership over solving their own problems, like any muscle, they will become stronger at it over time. And that’s good for them and fewer fires for you.

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