How to Help Your Employees Learn Self-Reliance

Luckily, some people have a natural instinct for analysis, judgment, hypotheticals, calculation of risk, and recovery from error. Some people with these skills were well trained, managed, and mentored before they came to work for you.

Many others have no training and little skill in these areas. At every level, we get frustrated with peers, supervisors, managers, and especially with executives who don’t make good decisions or get good results, who create new challenges for themselves — and us — every day. We often wonder why they don’t just do better. But all employees have potential for additional growth — and so do you.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll consider several aspects of employee development, so you can work on developing your own skills and those of the people you manage, instead of revisiting the same old frustrations again and again.

On-the-Run Development

One big marker for employee effectiveness is the ability to handle problems. It’s annoying when folks run into your office, call in from the field, or waylay you in the restroom to chew over the details of every little difficulty.

Some employees are addicted to the rush of excitement they get from rushing in to see you. Others just want access, to prove that they have a close relationship with you. And some of them may turn out to be incapable of coping on their own, and won’t be able to progress.

Often, people need to know explicitly that you trust them enough to let them take the lead. Sometimes they’re just not sure how to proceed. Either way, you need to separate yourself from taking ownership of their problems. The employees themselves may be your problem, but their problems needs to stay their own.

Lead the Witness, Instead of Being the Judge

With a little careful attention, most people can learn how to resolve their problems, or at least, can effectively get them teed up for a targeted decision from you. Use a consistent methodology to help them practice working things through on their own.

Instead of leaping into action yourself — or coming to the rescue — be thoughtful and inquisitive. Ask questions that walk the employee through the situation, meanwhile maintaining your own composure and thoughtfulness. Develop some standard probes that include anything like:

  • And how did that come about?
  • And why do you think that would be?
  • Could you tell me a little more about …
  • And how do you think we should do handle…

It also helps to have some purely deliberate and encouraging gambits:

  • Hmm, I see…
  • Gee, that’s a really good question. What are your thoughts about that?
  • That could be significant. What do you think it’s about?

Remember, your practice is to ask the questions, without rushing, and not to answer them!

To ease the situation and foster better thinking, sometimes you just need to put a little bit of distance between yourself the employee’s reactivity or fear. When it becomes clear that you’re willing to engage — and you won’t either withdraw or shout commands — the employee often calms down enough to make suggestions or recommendations.

After employees have successfully worked through this kind of question-and-answer session with you a few times and reached solid conclusions, when they show up again, you can say, with a smile, “Oh, you know the kinds of questions I’m going to ask.”

Access for the Needy

It helps to have your own rule of thumb for which kinds of problems need immediate conference, and which can wait for a better check-in time, because you don’t want to create an alibi for the fellow who may later say, “Well, you told me not to bother you with every little thing,” when it turns out that something didn’t work the way you wanted it to.

For example, if there’s no impending customer problem, legal problem, or physical danger, let the issue come up in the normal course in your weekly staff meetings or one-on-ones. This assumes, of course, that you are already creating the appropriate amount of access through individual and group meetings.

Be sure to find reasons to touch base more frequently in the beginning of this process; once you’ve weaned them off the extra attention, you can switch over to standard periodic meetings. As they learn to handle more situations on their own, they’ll simultaneously reduce their frantic need for your attention.

Onward and upward,


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