When Alice stomped into my office, I knew something was wrong.
“I can’t take it any more,” she fumed as she told me about the latest offense from Charles, the coworker who always “forgot” to include her in critical meetings. I could feel my blood pressure rising. He did what? He said what? No way, not to MY teammate!
60 seconds later, I was on the phone with his manager, demanding that he give some harsh feedback to Charles.
“I could do that,” said the manager. “But wouldn’t that make Alice look like a tattletale?”
I flushed with embarrassment. In my haste to play the hero, I had almost made the situation worse.
The problem with trying to solve other people’s problems
Be honest with yourself. How many times have you tried to take ownership of someone else’s problem? Maybe it was that time you yelled at your friend’s ex for cheating on her, or the time you called your child’s math teacher to get that B+ changed to an A-.
In a leadership position, it can be even more tempting to take on your teammate’s problems. You may believe that you will be able to solve it more quickly and effectively because you have greater power, status, or experience. However, when you try to solve your teammate’s problem for her, this is what happens:
- You aren’t fixing the problem; you’re deferring it. Most problems have underlying causes that run so deep that they can’t be solved in one go, especially by a third party.
- You’re making yourself a bottleneck for problem-solving. Your teammate will start to feel like any time she has a problem, she needs to rely on you to solve it.
- You’re implicitly telling your teammate you don’t trust her. Now she’s not only worried about solving her first problem; she’s also worried about how to earn back your trust and respect.
- You’re probably making things worse. You risk making it seem like your teammate is incapable of solving her own problems.
Help people design their own solutions
If I really wanted to help my teammate, I had to ditch the superhero cape and become an advisor and collaborator. I apologized to my teammate and suggested that we work together to address the problem.
The next time she walked into my office, it was with a big smile on her face. She’d had a productive conversation with her teammate and was already seeing improvements!
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Being a leader isn’t about solving people’s problems for them; it’s about helping them design their own solutions.
Design process for problem solving
Many of the tools and techniques we traditionally use for solving design problems can be repurposed for “people” problems. Here’s the process I use to help teammates design their own solutions:
- Acknowledge the problem. Many people struggle with asking for help because it requires them to acknowledge their weaknesses and failures. When your teammate raises a problem, thank her for trusting you enough to share and let her know you’re there to help.
- Clarify the situation. Put on your Researcher hat and ask open ended questions about the situation. Use the “5 whys” to identify the root cause. It may be useful to capture your insights on a whiteboard; for example, drawing a quick stakeholder map can help you quickly identify breakdowns and opportunities.
- Brainstorm approaches to problem solving. Pull out your post-it notes and work together to brainstorm different possible solutions to the problems you’ve identified. Push for quantity of ideas over quality; ideas that seem silly at first glance may in fact have some merit.
- Narrow to the top ideas. Encourage your teammate to decide which ideas to try first. If she’s struggling to prioritize, suggest that she order them by risk, effort, or potential for success. If she seems to be picking ideas that you don’t agree with, ask her to explain her rationale before providing your own input.
- Execute the plan. Check in with your teammate and hold her accountable to the plan. If she seems to be putting it off, ask why and help her adjust accordingly. Also hold yourself accountable and report back about any actions you took on her behalf.
- Reflect on the outcomes. Ask your teammate what happened when she put the plan into action and how she feels about the outcomes. Celebrate her successes, help her unpack problems, and encourage her to reflect on her learning and growth.
- Iterate. A designer’s work is rarely done. If the problem hasn’t been resolved or new problems have emerged, return to Step 1 and repeat.
A few exceptions
Here are a few exceptions that may require a different approach:
Problems related to harassment, bullying, criminal activity, or other HR violations need to be dealt with immediately and professionally. Your organization likely has clear policies related to this. If in doubt, speak to your HR representative.
They aren’t ready to problem-solve
If your teammate comes to you in such an emotional state that he is not yet ready to move into “problem-solving” mode, that’s ok. Create a safe, non-judgmental space for him by using active listening. If you aren’t sure whether he’s ready to problem solve, ask, “How can I help?” Let him take the lead on whether to tackle the problem immediately or whether he’d prefer to go for a walk and cool down a bit first.
The problem just won’t go away
If your teammate keeps bringing up the same problem and doesn’t seem to be making any progress, it may be time to ramp up your involvement. Are there big cultural problems that need to be resolved? Is there something that could be solved through smarter staffing? Listen for trends in feedback from other employees and departments. You may discover deeper problems that should be addressed by yourself or others.
As a manager, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a hero. But if you really want to save the day, help your teammates design their own solutions and become their own heroes.