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The Power of Not Solving Problems

The next time an employee tells you about a problem, stop, listen--but whatever you do, don't propose a solution.
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Last week, I found myself on a long conference call with some of my team members. A thorny situation had come up in planning one of our events, and our executive director, vice president, and I had spent the past half hour on the phone with the person in charge of the event, talking through the problem and suggesting a series of solutions.

Suddenly, it struck me that we, the ASJA leadership, were doing too much talking and not enough listening, so I stopped our brainstorming in its tracks to pose a simple question: What did the person who was actually running the event want to do about our dilemma?

She paused for a moment, and then suggested the perfect solution. "That works great for me," I said with a grin, another headache eliminated. It was a useful reminder of the power of not solving problems.

Let me explain: As a leader, solving problems is what you do. Employees or others in your organization faced with situations they can't solve come to you hoping you will either solve the problem for them or tell them how to solve it themselves. Sometimes it feels like that's what you're there for--to find solutions to difficult problems when no one else can. Right?

It's no wonder then that, presented with a problem, leaders immediately swing into solving mode. But before you do, it's important to check that first impulse and stop to ask yourself a simple question: Should I be the one to solve this?

Sometimes the answer is no. Here's why:

1. Your employee may merely want a sounding board.

It's a classic complaint from many women: They'll have just started to describe a problem they want to vent about or try to talk through, when the man they're talking to begins proposing practical solutions. Not that the solutions themselves are bad, but the woman wanted only a sympathetic ear.

Managers can make the same mistake. Sometimes employees will take the time to describe a challenge in detail simply to let you know how hard they're working. Or perhaps they want you to listen and lend encouragement while they work through the problem themselves. Or, they may genuinely want you to come up with a solution. Until you know which of these three is motivating an employee to tell you his or her troubles, don't short-circuit the process by offering solutions.

2. You'll get better buy-in.

Whatever the solution is to a problem, chances are you won't be the one who has to actually execute it, your employees will. They'll bring more commitment to that work if they're using a strategy they came up with rather than one you handed down to them.

It's the difference between following instructions or taking ownership of a problem. Which would you rather see your employees do?

3. You'll wind up with happier and better employees.

Proposing a solution to a problem and then being entrusted to carry out that proposal means opportunities for career development for your employees. Like anything else, solving problems improves with practice, so giving employees the chance for that practice lets them widen their experience and get better at their jobs.

They wind up with better resumes and greater confidence. You wind up with employees who have a wider skill set, and are more able to take problems in hand on their own.

You'll be happier too, because not every problem will require your constant attention. And all because you stopped yourself from solving problems too quickly.

 

IMAGE: Helen Ashford/Getty
Last updated: Jan 29, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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