Don’t solve the problem.

What makes a great manager isn’t the problems they solve, but the questions they ask. Start with these 16 questions here.

An employee comes to you and says, “I have a problem.” If you’re trying to be a great manager, what do you do?

Your initial instinct might be to roll up your sleeves. “Time to be the boss,” you think to yourself. You’re ready to step in, solve the problem and save the day.

Or something like that. You just want to be helpful.

In reality, your instinct is the opposite of helpful. Startlingly, when you jump in to solve a problem as a manager, it’s one of the biggest leadership mistakes you can make.

I was reminded of this counterintuitive concept when chatting with Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier, on our Heartbeat podcast at Know Your Team. Though his company today is thriving with over 200 employees and over 2 million users, Wade admitted how he struggled in the early days as a CEO when an employee would come to him with a problem:

“When you [jump in and try to solve the problem yourself] you’re actually mistaking your roles. You’ve hired this person to solve problems. And if they’re unable to solve the problem, you’ve probably hired the wrong person.”

In other words, your role as a manager is not to solve problems. It’s to help others solve problems, themselves. Leadership is stewardship. It’s navigating your team through treacherous waters, around jagged rocks, to the desired destination, and making sure folks feel nourished and rested along the way. But you can’t be a good steward if you’re scampering around trying to paddle all the oars faster, yourself. To take the boat analogy one step further, a great manager is a coxswain, not a rower.

This confusion of roles leads to a highly undesired outcome: You prevent your team from learning how to solve the problem. A dangerous reliance develops that hinges on your expertise, your “final word.” Your team never gets to fuss, flail, and figure out how to crack a nut with their own hands. When you’re the one thinking through all the problems, you’re teaching your team members to not think for themselves.

You also inadvertently slow your team down. Every problem — especially the “hard ones” — are re-routed to you. So what happens if you’re out of the office that week? Or, what if your plate is full? Well, that problem will just have to wait. And wait it does. You become a bottleneck, the inhibitor of your team. You funnel your team into a single mode of dependency that’s difficult to undo.

The best leaders know this and are keen to avoid this pitfall — so they do something else. They become the team’s accelerator. They help team members think for themselves.

How? By asking questions. Wade of Zapier adopted this practice as a CEO, describing it as a “more Socratic way” to helping his team solve problems. Ultimately, it leads to better results.

Ask questions and a team member can come to the answer themselves. Ask questions and the problem they’re facing becomes more lucid, less daunting. Ask questions and your team member might even come up with a better answer than you would have.

To be a great manager, here are 16 questions during a one-on-one meeting you can start with instead of jumping in to solve the problem yourself:

  • What do you see as the underlying root cause of the problem?
  • What are the options, potential solutions, and courses of action you’re considering?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each course of action?
  • How would you define success in this scenario?
  • How do you know you will have been successful?
  • What would the worst possible case outcome be?
  • What’s the most likely outcome?
  • Which part of the issue or scenario seems most uncertain, befuddling, and difficult to predict?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What is your initial inclination for the path you should take?
  • Is there another solution that isn’t immediately apparent?
  • What’s at stake here, in this decision?
  • Is there an easier way to do what you suggested?
  • What would happen if you didn’t do anything at all?
  • Is this an either/or choice, or is there something you’re missing?
  • Is there anything you might be explaining away too quickly?

What you’ll notice when you ask these questions is that most employees already have an answer (or several answers!) to a given problem. But they were uncomfortable with it, or they were worried about getting it “wrong.”

Part of asking the questions isn’t just to help them think through the problem more clearly, but also to help them realize they know more than they think, they’re more capable than they think, and that they’ve mitigated the risks better than anticipated.

Your job as a leader isn’t to just help clarify thought processes — but to give confidence in their thinking.

As Wade says, “You’re trying to just help them get to that realization that, ‘You know what to do.’”

After all, a great manager is centered on building the capabilities of their team, not their own capabilities

Don’t solve the problem, yourself.

⚡️ Want to help your *team* solve problems, instead of you solving problems all the time? Use our One-on-Ones Meeting Tool in Know Your Team — we give you hundreds of suggested questions and agenda templates to ask during your one-on-one meeting so you’re coaching your direct reports, instead of solving the problem for them. See for yourself and try Know Your Team today.

Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

11 thoughts on “Don’t solve the problem.

  1. So true. Great managers help develop their people and in this scenario it’s helping them think and problem solve on their own.

  2. “Part of asking the questions isn’t just to help them think through the problem more clearly, but also to help them realize they know more than they think, they’re more capable than they think, and that they’ve mitigated the risks better than anticipated.

    Your job as a leader isn’t to just help clarify thought process – but to give confidence in their thinking.”

    Claire, thanks for writing this. I want to make sure the readers know that your piece applies not only to managers working with their teams, but also to any “leadership position” (be it business owners working with their staff or parents with their chidren or in my case, working with executives or high-level business owners to get them to ask the right questions among other things). Like you said (and I concur), they usually have the answers. We just need to help facilitate that process.

    As easy and tempting it might be to solve those challenges for others, it runs contrary to one’s role as a leader. True leadership is measured only after you’ve left your team or organization. Steve Jobs’ role at Apple comes to mind.

    1. This technique is useful I agree, however, I have observed it in the hands of a manager who after asking questions and listening to responses was not able to efficiently direct action. The team member was made to feel stupid when they were unable to provide answers or ideas and then told no that’s not going to work for any ideas they did have.
      As a manager one needs to be prepared to deal with solutions offered, that might not be ideal, in a sensitive manner.
      Also I have mananged some very effective individuals that ask only when they really ‘need’ to know something – this type of high functioning individual requires debate rather questions. It comes down to knowing when this technique could be used and not using it as a blanket solution.

    2. I find that the most sensible manner to deal with a solution that I don’t find ideal is to ask more questions. It’s difficult to do because it goes against our instincts but its really efficient. Turns out that more often that I would like to confess the not so ideal solution was indeed pretty good when I listened to the answers to all my questions 😁

    3. Respectfully referring readers to coach Michael Bungay Stanier & his book “The Coaching Habit”. Very clear & usable model of the use of questions to inspire people and get results.

  3. This is a bit of a scary piece, for it comes straight from the school that suggests good managers can manage projects where they know absolutely nothing about the work product. So Pepsi Cola CEOs should be able to manage Apple Computer. Why not?

    If that’s the case, just mail these secret tips to your highly intelligent employees and have done with it. They aren’t rocket science. But yet, you may be doing rocket science. Your engineer employees might be struggling with O-rings on the Space Shuttle. Now what?

    I’ve seen hospital managers who can’t look at blood. If your project manager doesn’t have have a bit of J Robert Oppenheimer, he might be Pointy-Haired Boss. Then you’ll be making the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Or worse.

  4. Hello, thanks for this piece. This might not work in Asian working culture. Employees expect managers to be able to solve most difficult problems, otherwise it’s hard for managers to win respect from his or her employees.

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