Other People’s Problems

by Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published in Software Development, September 2001.

We all have problems at work, sometimes more than we can easily handle. Managers tend to encounter more sticky situations because of the nature of our job. And not only do we have our own problems—others often ask us to solve theirs, as well.

Evade Evasion

As a busy manager, how should you react when employees drop their problems in your lap? Some managers have developed the following rules to deal with such a situation:

  • Don't bring me a problem without a solution.
  • Don't bring me a problem if you're going to be emotional about it. I don't want to see you cry or get angry.
  • Don't bring me a problem if I can't do something about it.

Unfortunately, following these rules will make you a less effective manager because your staff may stop consulting you when they encounter difficulties. You will have created a situation in which you won't know about problems early enough to do something about them.

Chances are good that you developed these rules for valid reasons.

One of my colleagues, Paul, says, “I want my staff to think clearly about their jobs.” Paul is so occupied by his own work that he wants his staff to do the same, rather than immediately kicking problems up to him. He's concerned that if he gets involved, he'll get behind on his responsibilities and cause the technical work to lag—something he doesn't want. But when Paul discussed his reluctance to get involved with his staff's headaches, they replied, “We've already talked about this issue together. What we need is your objectivity and business understanding to make progress.” Paul had assumed that his staff had sought his technical advice. Instead, they wanted guidance from a business perspective.

Tears and Fears

“I can't deal with the touchy-feely stuff,” Ellen, an engineering director, says. “I hate it when people cry; I don't know what to do.” Many of us aren't comfortable with our employees' human-ness at work, and would prefer not to deal with people's strong emotions. The first time someone cried in my office, I felt scared and uncomfortable. I finally said, “I'm sorry you're sad, and I don't know what to do.” My employee replied, “Oh, that's all right. I'll be better in a minute or so.” Ellen also learned that strong emotions can come from problems with work; not with her or the rest of her staff.

Don't Know It All?

Some of us fear that we won't have an answer for the problem. Brian, a development manager, has significant technical expertise, but worries that his staff might bring him a problem, and “I'll look like a jerk if I can't fix it.” I hate not knowing the answer, too, but as a manager, you don't need to have all the solutions. You only need to have an idea about how or where to get to a solution.

Proactive Problem-Solving

Instead of evading other people's problems, take the opportunity to exercise leadership and management:

Try to establish and articulate the problem's importance relative to all the other work you're overseeing. Should we solve this problem at all? Is it worth our time to solve? Weeding out insignificant hangups is the mark of a good manager.

Make sure that the work environment is conducive to solving the problem. If not, try to change the environment so that the problem-owners can solve the problem themselves. I once worked with an architect who was having trouble formulating the next-generation architecture. He burst into my office, insisting, “JR, I'm never going to figure this out. Cancel the project.” After he described all the things that were wrong with his current designs, he added, “I can't even use my desk. It's set up the wrong way.” We'd recently moved into a new space, and the furniture police had condemned his old desk and given him a new one, which had a left return instead of a right return. I found him a new desk, and within a few days, he'd completed the architecture effort. Sometimes, optimizing the work environment is as simple as replacing a desk. At other times, it's more expensive and time-consuming. An effective manager will create whatever work environment is necessary for her staff.

Offer ideas about how to find the solutions—like the librarian who doesn't know everything, but can find almost anything. Even if you're a first-line technical manager, you still don't have to solve every problem. It's okay to say, “I don't know; let's go ask Jack.” When you admit you don't know the answer, you're telling your staff that it's OK to ask for help.

Evading problems won't make them disappear. Instead of attempting to avoid them, try a proactive approach: problem discovery. Look for problems early, when they tend to be smaller and easier to fix. Try changing your reaction from “don't bring that problem to me” to “let's get more information to move forward.” You don't have to accept the problem as your own, but you do have to facilitate your staff's problem-solving alternatives. Check out these useful techniques:

“Tell me how you perceive the problem.” Ask your staff to brief you on what they perceive. Sometimes, people think about a problem so long they become stuck and can't see a solution. As soon as they articulate it to someone else, several possibilities spring to mind. Paul used this technique with his staff when they were concerned about how to meet an “impossible” deadline. He was able to rank each project's importance to the group, which helped his staff choose which projects to temporarily short-staff in order to meet the most important project's deadline.

“What do you want to have happen?” Sometimes, we have too many possible solutions, or we see the result we want to achieve even if we can't see a solution. Ellen was mentoring Jon, one of her managers, about what to do with a problem employee. Jon wasn't sure if he wanted her to stay or go. When Ellen asked Jon what he wanted to have happen, Jon said that he wanted to spend less time with the problem employee. Ellen then asked him to describe how that could happen. Jon realized that his problem employee was stuck in the wrong role, and if he helped her change roles, she would be happier and more productive. Ellen then asked: “How would that affect you?” Jon replied that he would still be faced with work that wasn't getting done, but at least he wouldn't have to worry about the employee.

“What do you think we might do?” Your staff needs to know that you value their suggestions and recommendations. After Paul had ranked the projects, some of his managers asked about staff shuffling. Paul suspected that they already had some specific ideas, so he asked for their opinions—and got them. They were just making sure that Paul signed off on their plans.

“What have you tried so far?” Sometimes, I phrase this as: “What ideas have you had that you think can't work?” In this way, you avoid offering suggestions that your employees have already tried. Their answers will give you a chance to discover what they've tried, what they've considered, what they've rejected and why.

“Show me your three great ideas.” In solving problems, one choice is a trap and two choices are a dilemma, but three choices can provide enough breathing space to find a viable solution. Two of Brian's architects disagreed with each other's proposals: After discussing the alternatives, they still couldn't concur. When Brian asked to see their three alternatives, they were confused. Brian explained that for every solution, there are at least two other valid solutions. Since the architects couldn't agree on either of two solutions, perhaps a third alternative was in order. If you fully investigate three options, chances are good that one will be appropriate.

Remember, effective management doesn't mean that you have to know the answers. To be an effective and competent manager, you must facilitate a method to find the answers.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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