Leadership Lessons

Actionable insights on management and leadership from Progressive Business Publications.


7 ways to get employees to solve their own problems

An employee has a complaint and naturally, he goes to his manager for help.

So, how should the supervisor respond?

If you said “the manager should rely on experience to tell the worker exactly what to do,” guess again.

Leaders aren’t doing themselves any favors by holding employees’ hands through every complaint or minor gripe. Instead, the best managers:

  • distinguish between urgent and nonurgent matters
  • coach employees on how to think through their problems and plot out solutions, and
  • encourage staffers to seek out those solutions themselves.

Even if supervisors haven’t been instructing employees on how to handle problems on their own, it’s not too late to start.

Managers can help employees and themselves by following this seven-step plan:

Commit to stop playing the parent

The first step to solving a problem? Realizing you have one. Same goes for managers who’ve made it clear that employees can come to them with all of their issues.

By now the process is likely instinct: Employee comes in, asks a question, the supervisor answers it, everyone gets back to work.

We get it: It’s hard to argue with results. But employees who grow accustomed to dumping problems in their managers’ laps aren’t helping anyone.

Before managers can get people to solve their own problems, they need to recognize that they’ve been enabling employees to rely on them – and decide that they want to turn off their instinctual response.

Pick your challenges

Not every employee concern is a life-or-death situation.

As mentioned, managers should always step in when staff members come to them with concerns or complaints about harassment, discrimination, violence or other serious workplace problems.

But more often than not, supervisors don’t need to get involved right away.

Instead, the first thought a manager should have when an employee asks him or her for help is, “Is this something that must be solved right now?”

If so, supervisors should drop what they’re doing and help.

But if not, managers should feel no obligation to immediately help – and should use one of the following techniques to help employees figure out the answer on their own.

Ask questions

One trick successful managers use to get employees thinking about problem-solving: Quiz them.

Asking questions serves two purposes: It gives the manager much-needed info on what’s going on, and it may help employees better think through all the facts of a situation – and maybe come up with a solution in the process.

Some examples:

Can you explain more about this situation?

Can you describe exactly what that person is doing that’s the problem?

How is the behavior hurting you or your co-workers?

Have you talked to the person and told her how you feel? If so, what did you say?

What do you think the consequences might be of going that route?

Where do you think you could find that information?

Point the way

Managers have risen to their level in their organization because, among other things, they know a lot – about their firm, about who does what, about company policies and about conflict resolution.

That knowledge is obviously what employees are after when they want managers’ help.

But supervisors should realize is they’re not obligated to dispense with it so quickly.

Employee conflicts, policy questions, general office complaints – more often than not, these are things staffers haven’t tried to solve on their own first.

That’s why some managers trying to coach employees to solve their own problems give staffers suggestions on where they can go to get answers instead of just handing it to them.

That could mean giving them the name and number of their company’s benefits person, or pointing them to the firm’s intranet to check the employee handbook.

If managers do it enough, employees will remember that, for example, next time they have a question about their firm’s vacation policy, they can check their handbook before they bug their supervisor.

Encourage solutions

One of the most successful ways to get staffers to solve their own problems is actually quite simple.

Supervisors can ask their staff to always bring at least two or three potential solutions every time they approach their manager for help.

Then the manager and the employee can talk about which approach might work best.

In this way, managers get their employees thinking beyond the moment (“I can’t believe Betty said that to me!”) and about the future (“How can I respond to this situation in an appropriate way?”).

Another benefit: Doing so may help employees realize that they already know an appropriate answer and can take action on it without involving a higher authority.

Be supportive and reward initiative. Sometimes employees who come to managers with solutions to their problems don’t exactly hit on the best answers. But if managers come down hard on them, it gives employees the impression that they can’t make mistakes – which is not what supervisors are trying to do.

Instead, managers should be encouraging and supportive of employees who come to them, even if their suggested solutions are lacking.

Here’s why: A Harvard University research team conducted a study at a hospital to determine what made employees more likely to report errors and offer solutions to those problems.

Though error reports rose 5% during a patient safety campaign, the frequency that employees offered suggestions to reported problems increased tripled.

Why was that? Because managers were instructed to be proactive in responding to error reports and not chastise employees or get frustrated with them.

Employees who’ve never practiced problem-solving at work are going to have a hard time at it at first. But managers who are patient and reward employees for taking initiative will almost always get better results than supervisors who don’t.

Don’t flinch

Changing any workplace routine takes time. Getting staffers to solve their own problems is no different.

Supervisors may meet resistance from workers who’ve gotten used to managers handling all their complaints. That’s to be expected.

But remember: Doing so will enable their employees to become confident problem solvers, and potentially help pave the way for some of them to take on leadership roles at their organization.

The key is to stay consistent. Once managers decide to push staffers toward solving their own problems, they shouldn’t turn back.

How to get the most from your employees

The old cliché “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” has a not-so-inspirational corollary: “It’s tough to get going when the going gets tough.”

And that’s the unhappy reality for many organizations today.

Getting great performances from employees can be a difficult challenge in tough times.

But that’s exactly when great managers show their stuff and talented employees rise to the challenges of keeping business performance high.

How can you get the most out of the people who work for you day after day? Valuable managers must become the workplace equivalent of the inspiring and influential coach.

Some of the best lessons in coaxing stellar execution can be drawn from the playing fields. Not every organization has the same talent, goals or time frame for the game. Not every coaching technique works with very individual or in every industry.

But there are some overall lessons to be learned from great sports gurus and trainers. Remember the true stories of talented mentors who’ve inspired a gaggle of inept misfits to achieve the extraordinary. Apply their approach to your lineup and see how far up you can run the score.

Boost confidence

As a manager, it’s important to remember that nobody wakes up thinking “I’m gonna do a lousy job at work today.” Someone’s performance might be sub par, but the reason usually isn’t a lack of desire to be good at the job.

Often, an employee lacks the confidence it takes to perform. Maybe they anticipate rejection or worse. Cold callers face hang ups, technicians can hit an impenetrable problem.

Empowering workers to feel confident takes skills training and ego boosting. Often, this can be achieved by giving an employee better training, a selection of tips and tricks or better tools to get the job done. Consider enlisting some outside trainers to bring a fresh perspective or a new approach to a seasoned organization.

Employees will also grow more confident when they know they have the trust and backing of the organization they work for – and that’s communicated by respect. Being honest and fair with people will go a long way in boosting their self-image and esteem.

Communicate directly

It sounds simple, but it rarely is. Talking to the people who work with you in an open, direct fashion is a key coaching technique.

Praise for a task done well will do more for performance than berating the worker for mistakes. Helping an employee learn from a mistake is one thing. Belittling someone for a slip-up undermines morale and scuttles productivity. Using a blunder as an opportunity for learning is far more effective than doling out punishment for an honest mistake.

Coaching communication should be clear, concise and unambiguous. Be specific about what’s needed and candid about the consequences of failure. Empty promises or threats will backfire.

It can often be tough to keep the anger and frustration you feel from creeping into your conversations. It’s good to be direct and assertive with the people who report to you. It’s another thing to be furious and abusive.

If you find yourself having trouble keeping your temper in check, give yourself a timeout. Shut your office door, go for a walk, find an empty bathroom stall and retreat from the situation for a bit. Talk yourself down and remember that your reaction can have ripple effects beyond this moment in time. Think about the end game and how to get there.

Customize  rewards

Using a carrot – instead of a stick – is a powerful tool that will engage your people, help you retain talent and accelerate performance. But it has to be crafted to appeal to the individuals involved. People are different and what motivates one employee can fall flat with another. Offering incentives or rewards can be a strong motivator, but it’s important to understand what will stimulate the best performance.

As a manager, it’s your job to figure out what motivates each individual and tailor your rewards so that they will trigger the response you need and avoid a reaction you don’t want.

For example, offering tickets to the ballet for hitting a sales target might be a strong incentive for some workers, but others might view it as akin to being skinned alive. Some employees might view seats for a football game in a luxury box as torture, while other workers would see it as prize. Different strokes for different folks.

An option: Offer a menu of rewards and let the employee pick their own.

Adapt your style

Each individual has a unique personality and a variety of experiences. Using the same style with every person is unlikely to work. Although you can treat all employees with equal respect and honesty, you’ll need to tailor your approach to each one by careful observation and listening.

While it’s dangerous to generalize about people by sex, race or ethnicity, it’s important to remember that there are cultural and gender differences that influence what people value and how they interact. Being aware of those differences and respectful of the behavioral nuances of the people with whom you work, it is possible to be both sensitive and effective with people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.

Managers take responsibility for motivating their employees through direct, honest and enthusiastic communication that is individually targeted and results in building strong, productive teams. Coaching each member of the team in positive, creative ways is the key to transforming your organization. The leaders of the team, its coaching staff, need a variety of tools in their arsenal to be effective.

The 10 firing mistakes sure to get you sued

In sports, it’d be invaluable to have your opponent’s playbook.

In the same way, it’d also be good for HR to know how plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to sue you for wrongful termination.

Two plaintiffs’ attorneys recently shared their strategies with HR pros so you can avoid the 10 “deadly sins” that firms often commit.

It’s true only 3% of all cases ever make it to trial. But you’ll increase your odds of ending up there if you’re guilty of any of these sins:

1. ‘At-will’ as defense

The myth of employment “at-will” – that staffers can be fired at any time for any reason – has been devoured by thousands of exceptions. Every person in the U.S. can fall within a protected category.

2. Contradictory documentation

If supervisors keep checking “satisfactory” boxes on performance reviews, you’ll never be able to get rid of anyone for performance reasons. Want a termination to stick? Make supervisors write honest reviews.

3. Appearance of retaliation

If an employee exercised his or her rights under FMLA, the ADA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act or has announced plans to retire within the past six months and is then fired, a retaliation suit is almost automatic.

Watch out for close timing between adverse actions and protected activity. Juries like whistleblowers and believe they’re doing social good; these make great cases for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

4. No progressive discipline

If progressive discipline is in your handbook and you didn’t follow it, you’re in trouble. Juries are of a mindset that warnings are required before someone’s let go; the fired employee who can say, “I never got a warning” wins.

5. No respect for job longevity

If you fire a 10-year employee, plaintiffs’ lawyers automatically assume the firing was illegal – and they’ll find a way to prove it.

Wrongful termination jury verdicts rise dramatically for 10 years-plus of service, so these make very attractive cases for lawyers.

6. Shooting from the hip

Avoid rash decisions by having HR or another senior manager independently review all terminations.

7. Poorly implemented RIFs

Don’t call an elimination of one job a reduction-in-force; that’s a phantom RIF.

Everyone will think you were trying to get that one employee. You’re better off telling the truth about him or her.

And always be able to answer the question: “Why did you select me?”

8. No post-termination fairness

If you have no or cheap severance or try to deny unemployment benefits, staff members who wouldn’t have sued are backed into a corner and often feel they have no alternative but to sue.

9. Ignoring info requests

If you ignore a plaintiff’s attorney, you’ll just make him or her mad –

and he or she will go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If you give the lawyer the requested info, often he or she will talk a complainant out of suing if the case is flimsy.

10. No experienced legal counsel

Dealing with lawyers on your side who don’t have experience in employment law just drags out the case and probably will make it more expensive for both sides.

Source: Attorneys Randy Freking (513-721-1975) and Bill Waldo (213-553-9200) spoke at the 2013 Labor & Employment Law Advanced Practices (LEAP) symposium in Las Vegas.

6 small things you can do to boost business

Personal outreach can go a long way toward boosting customer loyalty and overall revenue. But many sales reps may not know how to turn off the sales switch — and reach out to customers when they’re not looking to close another deal.

And because they may fear appearing pushy and overly sales-driven, your sales reps may opt to wait for customers to come to them instead.

That’s what you want to avoid. The chance to stay top-of-mind and build long-term relationships isn’t something you want your sales folks to pass up.

So share with them these ways they can reach out to existing customers without sounding pushy:

1. Forward to a friend

You’ve probably all used the small “Forward to a friend” calls to action in email to send a friend or co-worker an interesting article. Why not do it with a customer?

This is a great way to reach out and just remind customers:I’m thinking about you.

2. Say congratulations

Your reps should be following what’s happening with your customers and their businesses. When something big happens with customers — like they launch a new product, win an award or have a birthday (Facebook can tell you when they were born) — your reps should be there to acknowledge it.

This tells customers you’re genuinely interested in their well-being.

3. Invite them to events

If your company is celebrating a milestone, a company team softball championship or the birth of an employee’s child, invite your customers to come join the fun.

And don’t just shoot them an email that they may never see. Instead, snail mail a personal invite or call them on the phone.

This will make them feel like part of the “family.”

4. Give them a referral

Referrals can be a two-way street. They don’t always have to come from your customers. They should come from you as well.

Whenever you run across someone who can benefit from what your customer does, don’t be afraid to vouch for your client’s business.

It’ll be hard for a customer to walk away from someone who’s bringing them business.

5. Refer them to someone else who can help

Chances are you can’t solve every problem your customers have or fill every one of their business needs. So be on the lookout for other companies who can help full in the gaps.

If you develop a reputation as a connector, customers will feel as though they’ll miss out if they ever break their connection with you.

6. Send them a gift

Who doesn’t love a gift? It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or expensive. It could be a small key chain, t-shirt, $5 Starbucks gift card or a promotional item your company gives away at trade shows — anything customers might find useful.

It’s the thought that counts.

Are you sending the right messages as a manager?

Are you sending the right signals to the people you manage so that they’ll respond by performing at a high level?

To give yourself a pulse check, ask these three questions about how you manage and the messages you send:

Do you like doing it?

Every manager has frustrations and days when doing something else seems more appealing. That’s natural.

Overall, however, good managers genuinely enjoy the idea of helping others become better workers and better people, and get real satisfaction out of helping others succeed.

As with any other endeavor, being a good and enthusiastic manager comes with practice. The more you do it, the better you become, and the more you enjoy it.

In the end, if you don’t enjoy helping others succeed, it’s going to be difficult for you to succeed.

Are you accessible?

We’ve all heard stories about the tough, stone-faced coach who drove others to succeed.

Look deeper and you’ll likely find that even the toughest, most stoic coaches knew when to let people approach and have their say – whether it’s to ask a question or criticize.

That doesn’t mean you have to be everybody’s best friend. It does mean employees should know that you can be approached to solve problem and maybe even just to listen to a little old-fashioned venting.

Do you manage by example?

If you want your employees to perform a certain way, you’re going to have to perform that way as well.

The classic bad example is the boss who’s trying to teach patience yet ends up getting angry and impatient with employees.

Everybody has their bad days. Good managers recognize their weaknesses and mistakes, and own up to them.

At the end of the day, a good manager is someone you want to be managed by.

6 keys to handling workplace investigations

It’s something every manager runs into at some point or another, the exasperating ‘he said-she said.’

It often crops up when there’s been some transgression of the rules.

Employee A says one thing happened.

Employee B says another thing – and often something very different – happened.

Whom do you believe – especially during sensitive workplace investigations where your decisions may have an effect on an employee’s standing with your organization?

It’s great when there is hard evidence, or a third witness.

But life doesn’t always come in neat packages.

So, how best to get to the bottom of things? One key is to determine the credibility of the people involved.

That advice comes courtesy of attorney Lorene Schaefer on the Win-Win HR blog.

To get to the heart of who’s telling the truth and when, Schaefer suggests that you model your questions on the courtroom instructions judges often give to juries when it comes to weighing witness credibility.

Doing so will give you a better chance at getting as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened – and choose an honest, nondiscriminatory reason for taking a specific action.

Here are the typical guides you can use to decide whether there’s a foundation for believing what an employee is telling you.

Ask yourself initially if the person:

  1. instinctively impressed you as one who was telling the truth
  2. had any particular reason not to tell the truth
  3. had a personal interest in the outcome of the case that might cause a deviation from the truth
  4. seemed to have a good memory of events
  5. had the opportunity and ability to accurately observe the things he or she is telling you about, or
  6. appeared to understand the questions clearly and answer them directly.

The approach is not foolproof, and much depends on our own good (and at times not-so-good) judgment.

But in many instances, this approach can eliminate a lot of less-than-believable “information.”

4 Things All Sales Managers Must Do Well

To be an effective sales manager, skip the flavor-of-the-day techniques and stick to these tried-and-true tactics that have been the cornerstone of the best manager’s approaches for decades.

According to experts at ManageElite, leaders are most effective when they:

  • Build rapport. The best managers are always approachable (even if they have to delay a rep’s request to chat because they’re busy). Then they encourage their employees to talk by asking questions, listening intently and saying their names and the words they use often,. They generally focus on similarities, not differences.
  • Are Diplomatic. They keep opinions to themselves and focus on facts and the truth. Then they give their people the benefit of the doubt unless continually proven wrong – which is when they deal with the consequences fairly and swiftly.
  • Resolve conflicts. They handle issues immediately – before they get worse – and ask questions to help employees work things out. Some to try: What would you like to see happen? What does this situation look like for you? What would it take for us to be able to move forward? How did we get here?
  • Grow their people. Great leaders try to get rid of what makes their people unhappy or gets in their way of getting things done. They help reps stay focused on business results by making them accountable without micro-managing. They work with reps individually to create goals that align with their personal and business expectations. Then the continually communicate to always move toward achieving goals.

Giving Back: Making Your Business Successful AND Charitable


Who would have thought it? Doing good works in the community can make a business more money. Philanthropy and Profit? They make a surprisingly effective duo.

Of course a business exists primarily to make a profit. A business owner who doesn’t care about successfully selling his product won’t be a business owner long. Also, an unsuccessful business won’t be able to undertake charitable endeavors. But businesses that operate to make money and give back to the community create a team philosophy with their staff and customers. People work harder and buy more when they know their efforts are helping others.

Employees primarily work for a paycheck, but the day to day tasks of a job take on greater meaning if they are also working for something more. If, say, a local restaurant partners with the local women’s shelter, promising them 10% of their net profits, it can be great for both establishments. An exhausted cook and waiter staff will make that extra effort to please customers in order to help battered women in their area. Customers, who want a good meal, will be more likely to choose the restaurant that is helping the community. Indulging themselves by eating out will seem less selfish and more philanthropic.

The psychology of giving is complicated, but surprisingly, combining the need to make money and to help others is actually good business. It’s one of those situations where everyone wins. The people who drive the economy can use their profit-making power to help those who are struggling in that same economy. Who knew?

Do Your Actions Inspire Others?


Actions speak louder than words. A common phrase many people have heard before, yet it’s one of the truest quotes of all time. It’s a phenomenon witnessed every day. It’s not those that speak who become noticed, it’s those that achieve goals and act on their words. There’s no doubt that those who have strong desires and act on their beliefs inspire others.

A great example of this resides in the status of being a celebrity. Every day in our society we see how much of an impact celebrities have on ordinary people. They set trends, make movies, and create songs that spark changes in our culture. The smallest things about our culture stem from celebrities. The way we dress, what we watch, how we talk, have all been influenced by those who act on their actions. That’s why celebrities are popular in the first place and it’s why we hold them in such high regard. They are supposed to be the ones that have worked hard to achieve the dreams that we all share. They have a way of inspiring others through their actions. How does an actor nail a gig? The people holding the auditions have to feel some type of inspiration.

Actions are also what make leaders. You don’t become a leader by talking, you become a leader by acting. You don’t reach the Hall of Fame in sports by saying how good you were while you were playing. You have to let your awards and achievements talk for themselves. Talking doesn’t win games and inspire your teammates. The end goal is to win championships; that’s what inspires a team. Actions speak louder than words.   What are your actions saying?

Bizarre interview questions: Use ’em or lose ’em?

17933640_sWe’ve all read about them: The strange interview questions that companies throw at candidates just to see how they respond.

The real question: Do those bizarre questions actually prove anything?

Two recent articles look at the pros and cons of the bizarro interview questions trend to see if they’re useful at all during the interview process.


Squire Sanders attorney David Whincup, writing for Employment Law Worldview, sits squarely in the Pro Bizarre Interview Questions camp.

Whincup acknowledges what many interviewers may not — that even the interviewer himself might not know the answer to questions like, “How many chickens are eaten in the UK each year?”

What he does say, however, is that a candidate who makes an effort to answer such a ridiculous question “would show us that he would not panic immediately if faced with an unknown, had an analytical mindset and possessed some degree of numeracy.”

Whincup offers some legal advice for those who want to use such questions:

“The key to using them successfully from the legal perspective … is to ensure the retention of written records of what the answer told you about the relevant attributes of the candidate. Supportable references to resilience, lateral thinking, analytical skills, pragmatism, sense of humor, even honesty, are all possible outcomes from such questions, provided that you can explain why – and without those written records, forget it.”


Sitting in the opposite camp is a company that formerly used these types of strange interview questions all the time: Google.

In fact, Google — who it was reported earlier this year asked a candidate, “How many cows are in Canada?” — recently admitted it had done away with strange interview questions entirely.

That’s the takeaway from the New York Times‘ interview with Google’s Senior VP of People Operations Laszlo Bock.

Bock said:

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

Death and Taxes Magazine listed a few more examples of Google’s bizarre questions that the company no longer uses:

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?

How many times a day does a clock’s hands overlap?

A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?


So which is it: pro-or anti-bizarre interview questions?

Whichever path your company decides to go down, it’s certainly worth spending more time on the rest of the interview process rather than focusing a lot of time and energy on a question that’s sure to stump even the best candidates.

In fact, Bock, in the same interview, offers a sound piece of advice regarding interviews:

What works well are structured behavioral interviews, where you have a consistent rubric for how you assess people.

This includes asking a candidate to describe a real-life situation in which they solved a difficult analytical problem.

This has the added benefit of showing the interviewer what the candidate considers to be a difficult analytical problem rather than having each interviewer just make stuff up.