When to Let Their Problems Become Your Problem: A Strategy for Managing Escalations

Figuring out when to step in and referee team conflicts is about as challenging as knowing when to break up fights between your kids or just let them work, or should I say, battle it out.

Fortunately, we have a bit of research – or at least informed expertise – that guides this decision in the workplace.  For example, a recent Harvard Business Review article by Joseph Grenny addresses this very issue:

“Managers are more likely to allow their team to abdicate responsibility for solving their own problems, when they fail to understand their true role as managers…The day you become a manager, your success is no longer measured by how many problems you solve. Instead, your role is to build a team that solves problems.”

If this is true, and our worth as managers is measured by our team’s ability to solve its own problems, why do so many leaders get “sucked back in”?  If not careful, a manager’s day can be spent “putting out other people’s fires” rather than attending to his or her own tasks and goal achievement.

Grenny offers two logical reasons why a leader should consider NOT getting involved in team problem solving:

  • Being the hero creates weakness in your team – Over time – and with repetition – your team will come to believe that without you, the situation is helpless. Giving them time to solve problems themselves empowers them to believe in their abilities to function independently and as part of a team.
  • You relegate yourself to lower-priority tasks – Inserting yourself as your team’s problem-solver of day-to-day issues – interpersonal squabbles, territorial standoffs between departments, hoarding of critical knowledge, etc. – robs you of time that should be spent setting goals and objectives, driving strategy, promoting employee growth and leading organizational change.

You may be thinking that, surely, as people leaders, there are times when it is appropriate to step in to help the team build rapport, solve problems, make decisions or improve overall team function. You’re absolutely right, but leaders must be coached to know when and how this should occur most effectively.

I recently spoke with a manufacturing plant manager who said his goal was to “manage himself out of a job”.  What he meant was this: He knew he had several extended international trips planned over the next few months to help his company make key decisions about several potential acquisition opportunities. So, for the last six to 12 months, he has been proactively “stretching and growing” his team of people so that together, they will be able to handle anything that arises at his plant in his absence.

In doing so, he has taught them to work together to “manage up” to the level he could have provided himself. Whereas he may have stepped in and handled things directly in the past, he now steps back and lets the team work together to solve their own problems, as well as plant-wide issues.

To be sure, this is easier said than done at times, and there are instances that require stepping in, but those times are fewer and further between than one might initially expect.

When I am coaching leaders, I often talk about “delegating the work to the lowest capable level” and “creating role clarity and accountability”. So, Grenny’s guidelines for helping leaders know when to step in or stay out of the issue resonated with me and aligned with what we at EASI•Consult®  would recommend, as well.

Grenny has developed three questions for managers to ask themselves as a way to gauge their level of involvement in an issue:

  1. Who should own this problem? Before jumping in to figure how to solve the problem, first pause and consider who should own the problem. Remember that while the present issue needs resolution, how it is solved will influence future behavior. That is to say, whoever solves it now sets the stage for being the one to likely solve it in the future. If another employee or direct report is capable of handling it (perhaps with some support), give him or her a shot at doing so, providing minimal back-up as needed for success – or learning – to occur. Sometimes it is okay to let someone “get it wrong” in order to “get it right” in the future.
  2. Do it now or do it right? Consider the urgency of the problem. If stepping in – perhaps to exert position power as the manager – is required to achieve specific outcomes (e.g., client deadline), then it may be appropriate to support the direct report’s escalation of the problem to you. But be sure to include your team in the solution process to the greatest extent possible so that you are more of a partner than a hero, or worse – the “cleaner”, who covers up whatever went wrong.
  3. What is the least I can do? Managers’ desire to be helpful often propels them to do more than they should, solving problems that others should rightfully own. Grenny recommends that you “find the lowest level of initiative for yourself while requiring your team member to act at the highest level they are capable of”. Then, teach that person how to do it, or handle it, on his or her own the next time to build confidence.

As with many management best practices, there are always gray areas within specific circumstances that don’t apply or challenge the principles listed above. However, if we can motivate managers to reframe their thinking when it comes to the escalation of problems – much like the plant manager I mentioned earlier – we will no doubt see a positive shift in organizational functioning.

This isn’t about “passing the buck”; it’s about managers recognizing that consistently solving problems themselves often robs their employees of their own opportunities for growth and development.

So, stepping back may be the best way to “step in” and help, after all!

Rebekah Cardenas, Ph.D., is vice president of business development and assessment solutions at EASI•Consult ®.  EASI•Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASIConsult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult,  visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call (800) 922-EASI.

EASI·Consult® is the registered name for Expert Advocates in Selection International, LLC.
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