The Problem Isn’t the Problem
“The problem is not the problem”, as Captain Jack Sparrow famously said in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. “The problem is your attitude about the problem.” Sage advice (albeit from an unconventional source). Often when a manager jumps in to solve their direct report’s problems, they inadvertently create new problems. Let’s see how this plays out in a fairly typical work situation. Then we’ll show how the manager can be helpful without creating unintended problems.
Gabe is in charge of order fulfillment for a lighting fixture manufacturer. One day, he walks into Sharon’s office, where she and Steve are in the middle of an animated discussion. They both work for Gabe, and they’re discussing a problem: how to cover orders placed simultaneously by two of their best customers when the warehouse is temporarily out of stock of the item. Gabe overhears the customers’ names and asks what’s going on. Sharon summarizes the problem and then says:
This is an important issue, and Steve and I are figuring out the best way to handle it.
Hey, relax. It’s no big deal. Did you call our warehouse in Topeka? See if they can cover us?
Well . . . that would probably work.
Give Al Baker a call over there. He’ll help us out.
Oh, sure! He’ll be glad to. I’ll call him if you’d like.
No, that’s okay. (Very tense.) I’ll go talk to him now!
With that, Steve stomps out of Sharon’s office. Sharon shrugs, not sure what to say. A few minutes later, after Gabe has left, Steve storms back into Sharon’s office.
We were close to working out our own plan that I think would have been better. But he has to have everything done his way.
I agree, it’s very frustrating. It doesn’t seem like he has much faith in us, does it?
Gabe realizes he has upset Steve, but doesn’t understand why. As a manager, he feels it is his job to help his direct reports solve problems. He’s had bosses in the past with a “sink or swim” attitude toward their direct reports, and he doesn’t want to be unsupportive. How can Gabe handle this more effectively in the future?
The Problem is You
Gabe doesn’t realize that the problem is not the problem. To Gabe, the problem is fixing the out of stock problem. But the real problem is that when he jumps in, his people are demoralized, feeling that he doesn’t trust them to solve problems on their own. How will they learn to be effective problem solvers if Gabe jumps in to save the day all the time?
Autocratic Decision Making
It’s one thing to be helpful as a leader. It’s another to take over, even if you feel you’re just trying to help. Gabe may have good intentions, but he takes a pushy, Q1 approach to working with Sharon and Steve. Don exhibits autocratic decision making.
Imposing Your Will on Others
First, and very important, neither of them asked for Gabe’s help at that moment. By deciding to get involved and take over the situation, Gabe sends an arrogant Q1 message: “You can’t do your own work successfully without me.” Q1 may actually take satisfaction in maintaining this indispensable type of relationship.
When Your Boss Makes You Feel Incompetent
By not soliciting their thoughts, or asking if they needed his help, Gabe makes his direct reports feel incompetent. This is not good for their morale, let alone their personal development. How productive will Sharon and Steve be if they continually feel like Gabe has no faith in their problem solving abilities?
Q4 Coaching and Problem-Solving
In contrast, Q4 leadership works to give people what they need to be more independent and solve their own problems. That way, they can grow in their jobs by working through challenges, including this one. As Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Team, explains, “your role as a manager is not to solve problems. It’s to help others solve problems, themselves.”
We don’t know if Gabe has an overall Q1 outlook, but his behavior in this instance is Q1 domineering. One way he could have avoided this situation would have been to probe. Gabe is guilty of one-way communication. Yes, he let Sharon and Steve describe the problem, but he needed to understand the entire situation by getting their points of view.
Gabe immediately made Sharon less receptive by dismissing her concerns, saying, “It’s no big deal.” It is a big deal if Sharon thinks it is. Open-end questions, such as, “How do you want to proceed with this?” and then, “Why do you feel that’s the solution?” would acknowledge the pair’s capabilities and uncover their concerns.
Steve and Sharon may feel they have asked Al Baker for help too many times before, and it would seem unprofessional to ask him to bail them out again. That’s why a leader needs to check an inclination to wade in and “fix” everything. Holding back and probing before offering a solution will be more effective and build much more productive relationships.
Self-Awareness in Leadership
A big part of the problem here is self-awareness. Gabe is not aware of how his jumping in and solving behavior was impacting his direct reports. This is not uncommon, unfortunately. Many leaders have blind spots in particular areas regarding how others view their actions. If leaders like Gabe can improve their self-awareness, receive candid feedback on how they are coming across, and be coached on what they can do to handle the situation more effectively, this would go a long way toward improving Gabe’s leadership.
Your Next Moves as a Leader
Now that you know to look out for situations where the problem is not the problem, what is next?
If you would like to learn more to hone your leadership skills, check out our Leadership Learning page. You’ll find 40 more case studies on common, challenging work situations, and much more.
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