Are You Coaching, or Fixing? Let Employees Solve Their Problems

Ever look up at the end of the week and think, Where’d all that time go?? I worked over 40 hours and I still have things left undone!

Forget checking your calendar–yes, everything you needed to do was on there. What wasn’t on there were the 50 fires you had to put out outside your office door.

If it wasn’t one problem, it was another. The printer died, so you had to direct your team to find the closest working one in the building. You had to reschedule a meeting because an employee forgot to book a conference room.

Have a particularly difficult employee to deal with? Check these coaching tips!

Some days it seems like your otherwise smart employees can never solve their own problems.

But there are ways to make your people take the reins when things go wrong – and keep your already busy week from spiraling out of control.

Get Your Crew to Step Up

The first step is to resolve not to step in and solve the problem yourself. (For many of us, that’s the hardest part.)

When leaders fix problems, they unintentionally teach employees to adopt what leadership coach Marlene Chism calls a “victim mentality.” Instead of taking initiative, employees run to the leader complaining and expecting the leader to take action.

You’ll never get employees to recognize the ball’s in their court if you’re constantly fixing their problems rather than teaching them how, Chism says. She suggests these simple steps:

1. Just listen.

It’s tempting to intervene when you don’t understand a problem, but you’re better off just keeping quiet and listening. Hear the other person out, and don’t multi-task or interject your own thoughts.

When we let others describe the issue or concern, it allows them to spell out what’s wrong—which can make it easier for them to visualize a solution.

2. Acknowledge the other person’s reality.

This doesn’t mean automatic agreement. For example: An employee comes to you complaining that the others on her team leave the most difficult tasks for her to do, which has her swamped. If your response is along the lines of, “I hear you. It sounds like you’re overwhelmed,” the employee will either agree and ask for help, or correct you and say she’s got things under control.

This approach helps the employee gain perspective on the problem without you reinforcing one opinion or another.

3. Use an empowerment question.

Ask the employee, “What do you need?” or “What are your choices here?” Here you’re probing to get at the root of what needs to be fixed. Is she asking you to cut her some slack? Does she need a deadline extension? Does she want you to address the problem with the team?

Asking for the employee’s take on what can help allows him or her to reach a solution.

4. Don’t take the bait.

Once you ask your empowerment question, be careful not to open the door to an ongoing rant. As in the example, the employee might say she’s not treated fairly, or she feels like she can never catch up. Rather than setting yourself up for a counseling session (which would waste precious time), make the employee refocus on 1) the specific problem and 2) what can be done to solve it.

5. Promote a sense of responsibility.

What you want from them is a feeling that they’re mature and savvy enough to climb over hurdles without needing your help or attention. As in the example, if your employee suggests that assigning one time-consuming task to another team member would really help, you could offer to train another employee to take it over.

This way, you’re helping out—but your employee fixed the problem herself in a way that saved you both time and energy.

Your employees will never feel they’re capable of cleaning up their own messes if you don’t convince them they can. Use these steps to make sure you’re always coaching, rather than fixing.