My office in the lower level of the department store was the first one in the executive office suite and I kept my door open most of the time because I had no windows. And as the head of HR, I was the one everyone came to with all kinds of issues, from advice on how to deal with an underperforming employee, to where to access keys to the storeroom. At the time, I was one of the most proficient with the new computers that were slowly taking traction, so I was also the Help Desk and printer-unjammer. I admit, there was a part of me that enjoyed being so important! They say knowledge is power, and as the one who interacted with virtually everyone and every aspect of the store, I knew a lot!
But I was finding myself working long hours to get all of my work done due to the constant interruptions. I’d shut my door for a while to have a few minutes of focus, but it wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my door, or sometimes a full-fledged barge-in, and I’d find myself shifting gears to help the person in front of me.
Often I would try to schedule time with the interrupter so that I could finish the task at hand, but that wasn’t always an easy solution, especially in a multi-shift, 7-days-a week retail environment. Something had to be done or I was always going to find myself behind on my work and resentful for the interruptions.
I began to switch my approach from giving the answer immediately and spending time explaining the details to asking questions to make the other person think through the options and the best course of action, or to discover their own solution. When employees came to me to complain about each other, I pushed the resolution back on them rather than solving things for them. I had to let go of that feeling of being “in charge” and pack up my superman cape (or at least hide it under my suit jacket!) and allow folks to think things through on their own.
At first it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to be the hero with a fix, or at least a scapegoat for those who don’t want the accountability of making a decision. I had to get used to making it their problem, not mine. And they had to get used to coming up with their own solutions.
Empowerment & Accountability
There is a need for empowerment and accountability in the way we lead staff. These are not new concepts, yet are often weakly applied by well-meaning or, sometimes, controlling managers who step in to direct the behaviors of their employees. Empowerment – putting the power to handle situations on another – means I have to release that power so that the other person can pick it up.
Accountability shifts the responsibility for outcomes to the right person(s). If a manager holds themselves accountable for solving interpersonal issues on the team, or directing day-to-day activities (a la micromanaging), then employees will never hold themselves accountable. So it requires that I, as a manager, change my mindset to place accountability with the individuals involved, whether the issue is communication, task performance, or tactical decision-making.
We know, logically, that empowerment and accountability make sense, but between our need to control, a mistrust of our staff, and a mindset that says, “it’s easier to do it myself,” we build dependence that is both time-consuming and debilitating to our direct reports.
The idea behind self-solving dynamics is to shift responsibility to the people impacted by the outcomes. Instead of the boss fixing problems from operational setbacks to interpersonal challenges, self-solving dynamics places the burden of a solution on the shoulders of those who identified the problem (or opportunity) in the first place.
Self-solving dynamics takes a commitment by management to resist the temptation to be a fixer and instead be an enabler. I don’t mean enabling in the negative sense of allowing codependent behaviors, but in the opposite sense of allowing independent behaviors that lead to self-efficacy. If we want a workplace in which individuals at all levels are cognitively engaged, applying their whole being to not only attain organizational objectives, but achieve personal fulfillment as well, we have got to let go and trust that people will figure it out.
Students of leadership will remember the Theory X and Theory Y models presented by Douglas McGregor. Theory X managers see followers as disliking work, avoiding responsibility, and need constant supervision. Theory Y managers, on the other hand, view followers as individuals who seek and accept responsibility and want to solve work problems imaginatively.
It requires a Theory Y leadership mindset to allow self-solving dynamics to flourish. But with a workforce that has been victimized by poor leadership and mistrust, it takes intentional commitment to training, coach, and developing followers to gain confidence and skill. It also requires managers to reflect on their management style and asking for feedback from colleagues and direct reports.
Self-Solving Dynamics Defined
Self-Solving Dynamics is the practice of shifting responsibility for solving problems in from the manager to those impacted.
Moving Toward Self-Solving Dynamics
To make the shift to self-solving dynamics requires a realization that followers have been conditioned to ask the boss to solve problems, especially interpersonal or inter-team problems, and that bosses, for a variety of reasons, have obliged. To make the shift…
- Be aware of your tendency to solve problems for others, and the motivations behind those tendencies (power, self-importance, expediency).
- Practice asking questions when people come to you for solutions, rather than jumping in immediately.
- Be comfortable with mistakes; allow followers to learn by doing (just like you probably did!).
- Be available for consultation, but leave the burden with the one(s) with a problem. Allow them to own the solution. Coach, but don’t solve for them!
- Ask them to prepare a “lessons learned” summary, which will help them hone their self-solving skills and allow you to celebrate and coach more specifically.
So the next time an employee knocks on your door and wants you to solve a problem for them, tuck your superhero cape back inside your shirt and use the principles of self-solving dynamics to make them a superhero that can soar on their own!