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.

Leave a Reply