Resisting the Urge to Problem Solve

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The siren call comes several times a week–someone on my team is navigating a challenge, usually having to do with a client or between team members. Whether through email, Slack, or on a Zoom call, the person usually starts by providing me with some context and then highlighting the problem. The person then concludes with a question that immediately sets my mind ablaze: “What should we do?”

Having been in hundreds of situations dealing with clients, employees, freelancers, and all kinds of other people over 15+ years, I have a fairly deep well of experience to draw from. Whenever I’m presented with a problem, my mind races to pattern match it with similar situations from the past. I can usually come up with 2-3 approaches instantly and advise on the language and framing that might, in my opinion, get us the most optimal results.

But this Pavlovian response is a trap. My tendency to problem solve on the spot and provide the answers has most definitely stunted the growth of employees and reduced feelings of autonomy and ownership.

As satisfying as it may be to help with a solution, I must resist. The ego boost is simply not worth it.

Instead, the better response to the question “What should we do?” is to throw it right back:

“What do you think?”

Sometimes, this question is enough to encourage the other person to find confidence in the approach they already had in mind. They might rattle off the exact steps they plan to take, and in most cases, they’re very well thought out and just need my approval. In some other cases, my question back to them is an opportunity to surface some holes and missing information that need to be addressed in order to strengthen their approach.

If it’s the latter, then a series of follow-up questions can come in handy. Some of my favorites are:

  • What response/outcome are you hoping to achieve with the client (or team member) in this situation?
  • What else could you find out in order to make a more informed decision?
  • What would be a best-case scenario and what would be a worst-case scenario?
  • What are the pros and cons of your approaches?
  • What have you tried so far and learned?

When done right, these interactions can become impactful learning moments and also a way for the other person to flex their problem-solving and decision-making muscles. In situations where I’ve caught myself and opted to use questions rather than problem solve, I’m reminded that we’ve done a good job of staffing a team of smart and capable people.

As I continue to resist the urge to problem solve and instead, lean more towards curiosity, open conversations, encouragement, and collaboration on ways to handle challenging situations, I hope the following becomes true: that more team members will approach me with greater confidence in presenting their initial ideas and an eagerness to stress test and improve them together.

What I’ve written here is behavior that I’d love for our entire team, up and down levels and across disciplines, to fully embrace. But I recognize all too well that if it doesn’t start with me, then there’s no point in hoping. Here’s to resisting!

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