December 4, 2011

Do Not Accept Other People’s Problems

Tho and Van each try to give the other their messy problem.

If you are accepting responsibility for your people’s problems then you are a lousy leader.

“Wait,” you might say.  “My job as a leader is to take responsibility for problems.”

No, it isn’t.

Your responsibility as a leader is to help your people solve problems.  It is not to solve their problems for them.

When one of your people comes to you with a problem do you say “Ok I’ll figure out a solution for you?”  If so, then congratulations!  Now YOU own the problem.

And if now you own the problem, why do you have staff at all?  Why don’t you do everything?

Like most of my most valuable management lessons, I learned this one the hard way (see my post on Chain of Command).  Early in my career as a general manager I had a Marketing Director who was not performing.  Foolishly, I accepted responsibility for her work product.  Although I didn’t understand it at the time, the moment I accepted responsibility for her work product was the moment I became the de-facto Marketing Director.  I didn’t get the Marketing Director’s salary though.  Not a very good deal.  Not a very good way to get performance from my team either.

I’m a little smarter now.  I realize that while I’m happy to help them, I must make sure my people understand that they — not me — own 100% of the responsibility for solving problems in their job.

When someone asks me to solve their problem now my response is something like this:

I can get the shoeshine kid from the street and pay him your salary so he can stand here and tell me about problems he wants me to solve.  Telling me about problems is easy.  I pay YOU to solve problems.

Now, how can I support you?

Try it the next time one of your people tries to give you responsibility for their problem.  It feels pretty good.

PS – Accountability flows up the chain of command, not down.  In other words, your people are accountable to you for solving all problems in their area of responsibility.  And you are accountable to your boss for solving all problems of you and your team.

[Special shout-out to Marc Cenedella for the “shoeshine kid” bit.]
[If you liked this post, why not contribute to a discussion below?]

  • Viet Hong Le

    I love this advice :) , many times I have made this mistakes over and over agin.

    • Thanks Viet. Why not share an example here with the group? I’m sure others would learn from your “kinh nghiem xuong mau.”

      • Viet Hong Le

        Hi Chris,

        My stories have a pattern like this: I have been technical leader for several projects/companies, and there are always one point that one of developers go to ask me to help on solving/trouble shooting their problems.

        Hell yes! I though that what I was be there for, to help my team. And I usually took those programming problems for myself and stay late, working in the weekend, so that in the next day my guys can continues to work.

        I took myself the wrong role, as a leader, my job is mainly trouble shooting others programming problems (rather than I should help them to solve the problems themselves. )

        Instead of motivating team and support them *the right way*, I got all trouble myself.

        Then, later, I realize that there was somethings wrong, so every time I solve any hard programming problem, and spend more time to documentate how I solve those problems, so that they will understand how the problems are solved and how to solve if they face them again.

        But it still takes a lot of time, and my team still depends on me to help them do “their jobs” .

        The better way, yes, I should be more about motivating, supporting guiding my guys to solve *their problems*

        • Hi Viet — your example is *exactly* what I’m talking about! I used to make the same mistake.

          Our job as leaders is not to do our people’s work for them. Your people will never grow that way. Our job is to support them, motivate them, give them confidence and celebrate success.

          When I think someone hasn’t tried enough to solve a problem before bringing it to me, I say these magic seven words: “I don’t know. What do you think?” That usually gets things going in the right direction.

          My people now know that I’m always there to help, but that they should have ideas about solving a problem before bringing it to me.

          • Once my boss said to me, “Your problem is that you always think that you have to do everything on your own…” I’ve taken it as a “reminder” for myself since then and it really wipes my headaches away LOL Now I think my boss’ saying is somehow linked with your article, which is not only clearer but even better timing.

  • Thu

    A concise and interesting post, Chris :) I read your blog quite often and your articles are very useful to me.

    Just sharing some of my thoughts:

    What u wrote may somehow relevant in managing senior executives, isn’t it? For those who are managing new grads, it’s quite different to apply your tips. It requires time & patience while in the business world, time is a precious property.

    I can give an example that everyone would experience: some simple tasks assigned to employees who are new grads often eat up quite a lot of time and end up with a not-so-good or even bad results. Meanwhile they do not ask for your help in doing the tasks; even when you ask them what they have done, how you can help them, etc. they tend to say nothing but “everything is OK” :)

    Then, either the manager/supervisor has to take action to make tasks done or has someone in the team who is more senior to help correct what they did wrong in order to meet the deadlines. And last but not least, after pointing out areas of improvement for them, they continue to make the same mistakes from time to time.

    I wish to get more sharing from you!

    • Wow Thu, you raise a lot of good points.

      You’re right — my point about not allowing people to give you problems is most suitable for managers and people with experience.

      New grads require a LOT of training. Begin not with the job tasks themselves, but instead begin by training new grads on what behaviors you expect of them.

      For example, you might tell them that you expect them to tell you if they don’t understand a task. Also tell them that if they have trouble on the task then you expect them to ask for help. Make it “safe” for them to ask for help — a lot of new grads think they will be punished if they ask for your help. Make clear that it’s THEIR responsibility to ask for help if they are having trouble, and always be open and friendly when they ask.

      Another thing to communicate to new people is that mistakes are ok, but not telling you about a mistake is not ok. Recognize that people will make mistakes. The important thing is using the mistake as an opportunity to learn. Making the same mistake twice is not ok because it shows me that people are not using mistakes to learn. It’s my job to help them learn from mistakes, but I can only do that if they are comfortable telling me about mistakes.

      Mistakes would be a great topic for another post. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey Christ!

    Thanks for your sharing! I would like to ask you a question. If you lead a volunteer team that every members are working with you by voluntary spirit, how can you tell them to take their own responsibilities?

    I am leader of a voluntary group and I used to have troubles with my volunteers about their responsibilities. Some of my volunteers think that they are just someone to do something free so they do not take all their responsibilities for their problems. You know, I cannot mention salary or benefit to remind what they are paying for because I do not pay them salary.

    Look forward for your sharing.

    Nhon Pham,
    Founder of 5giosang

    • Hi Nhon,

      Leading a volunteer organization is one of the purest types of leadership.

      You can’t force people to do anything.  Instead, you have to appeal to their higher motivations. 

      Does everyone on the team understand the vision of the organization and how 5giosang will make a positive difference in the world?  Do they understand how their role supports that vision? 

      Once your people understand and believe in the vision, make sure they understand how what they do supports that vision.  Praise them and tell them how important they are to achieving the vision. 

      If they still refuse to take responsibility for problems, then you might have the wrong people in those positions. 

      Hope that helps!


      • Thanks Chris!

        I will seriously think about your advices. It’s not only about ways to motivate my volunteers but also about my vision.

        It helps!

        And there is just a suggestion: while you are free, why do not you become mentors or advisers for a non-profit organization? I think your leadership experiences can help NPOs a lot. Moreover, you might discover something interesting by doing this kind of responsibility.

        Nhon Pham,
        Founder of 5giosang

  • Alan Ho

    Thanks Chris, great post. Learned a few points from your post and the discussion. Look forward to more sharing from you. Bill

  • Hoang Thong

    Thanks for sharing, Chris.