Your purpose as a manager is about creating a business or a team that can function in your absence. This means you must develop your people, and one of the single best means of achieving this end is to ensure that your people deal with and solve their own problems.
However, there are several reasons why it's often easier said than done for managers to embrace this reality. First, they've usually been promoted because they're good at exactly what they should no longer be doing now they're in management – solving their team's problems! Second, as discussed in a prior blog, being a problem solver is fatal error that fulfils our emotional need to be needed but robs our people of essential development. For these and other reasons, managers often fall into the trap of acting as their people's problem solver, and it's a difficult one to escape because it's rooted in a very powerful habit. And here's the rub: The greater our competence, the more problems flow our way because we're simply good at solving them – but that's not leadership or management! We fail our people, we fail the organisation and we fail ourselves... eek.
We emphasise this crucial issue in our leadership development program by using our monkey metaphor: Whenever an employee brings you a problem, visualise it as a monkey on the employee's back. Listen to them, counsel them and guide them but don't let that monkey jump off their back onto yours. Ensure, however you're interacting with them, that they take their monkey with them. If you don't you'll quickly find you're running a zoo! And too many managers are running zoos.
A crucial distinction (and one that's not immediately obvious) is that while you don't want to become your people's problem solver, you definitely are a problem finder. This means being alert to issues and when your people come to you with a problem, don't simply send them on their way without internalising the issue and considering its implications. What's causing the problem? Is there a larger underlying issue at hand? Is there a lack of communication, knowledge, opportunity, direction or inspection? There are obviously a large number of issues at play here and any of them could be indicative of a larger issue that you may need to address.
Of course, a manager's responsibility as a problem finder extends well beyond an employee raising problems; that is, they must proactively look out for problem issues that indicate something is off track. In some cases an employee may be hiding a problem from you, but perhaps more frequently employees don't recognise that there is a problem! So by looking out for potential problems you'll surface and deal with them early. And as we discuss in how to manage poor performance a problem that goes unaddressed can quickly become a destructive habit.
So be sure not to act as your people's problem solver. Otherwise you'll stifle their development, and that of the organisation. But be equally sure you're acting as a problem finder... and giver. There are always monkeys hiding in the woodwork, and unless you proactively seek them out and identify them, they may rear their ugly head as a gorilla.