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Don’t Just Solve Your Team’s Problems. Teach Them How!

If you care about developing the people on your team to be junior execs and eventually senior leaders, make sure they can manage the organizational, interpersonal, and market problems that will inevitably come their way even when you’re not around to solve them.

A Helping Hand on the Way Up the Ladder

Up-and-coming employees used to learn leadership through apprenticeship: They observed experienced executives as they thought their way through tough situations, made clear judgments, and communicated cogently the reasons behind their decisions. They were also guided around pitfalls, often getting crucial repetitive practice with a senior manager looking over their shoulder and commenting at every step.

But today’s norm is for even high-potential employees to receive no more than some standard instructional material on problem-solving. Even worse, the colleagues they observe often have no more experience than they do.

Three Leadership Lessons

How can you teach your team to analyze a problem before trying to solve it?

  1. Present the facts. Don’t jump in to answer staffers’ questions with explanations and stories of what you would do in their place. You’ll only cut off their thinking, along with their participation, practice, and testing. And on complex topics — or if they’re feeling anxious — they may not have anything to suggest, and therefore might rely too much on your prompting. Even then, don’t give them an easy answer, tied with a bow. People implement plans with greater dedication and sense of context if they’ve helped build those plans themselves. So instead, array the facts for them and talk through the issues together — sort of like playing cards open-hand.
  2. Probe with leading questions to help the team learn to anticipate the logical ramifications of their judgments, and to incorporate the likelihood of various potential outcomes into their thought process. Your questions might include: What do you think the result of that action would be? How would it affect that colleague/customer/executive/friend? How do you think they’d respond to that?
  3. Ask about their evidence. What if the team’s assumptions are inaccurate? How would those errors affect their analysis and conclusions, as well as the potential outcomes? What if the truth is actually the opposite of what they believe? Try to provide hypotheticals that require new and expanded use of data, and encourage more robust solutions.

Yes, you may have to facilitate all of the discussions in the beginning, but over time your staff will learn how to define, analyze, and judge. Watch them develop the intellectual and pragmatic muscles to add their own thoughtful opinions and push at the issue themselves.

Taking Off the Training Wheels

Once they’ve had a little practice, sometimes the best teaching method is to let your team struggle with a problem for a while. That way, you can see how far they can take things on their own before you intervene. Keep in mind that not every problem needs to be fixed — at least not right away.

And although it may feel more efficient to direct staffers explicitly, you’re not really helping if you leave them incapable of handling their own problems later in their careers. So definitely let the team experiment. Just be sure they don’t hurt themselves, each other, or the organization while they do it.

Onward and upward,


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