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Get employees to solve their own problems

Posted by admin on February 12, 2017

The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently ran an article with the headline “Get your employees to solve their own problems”. As you can imaging any headline that has “employees” and “problems” will quickly get our attention. While the article had some useful tips for managers, it missed the mark in a few categories.

First, it never addressed the definition of a problem. Rather, the article seemed to cover a mishmash of problems, decisions and opportunities. Without a clear understanding about the differences in these three unique situations, the employee will be flailing away trying to resolve a situation he or she doesn’t really understand. This is one of the failings of many efforts to get employees involved in problem solving. Just for the record, a problem is a situation where performance isn’t what is expected; a decision is a choice between two or more alternatives; and an opportunity is a situation that allows for increased performance by taking action.

But our biggest issue with the article was that it never explained that there are proven processes employees can follow to address each situation. These processes are the tools that help employees solve problems, make decisions and take advantage of opportunities. The article looked at things from the perspective of the manager trying to encourage employees to take ownership of problem solving. But this is like encouraging carpenters to build a house without giving them the tools to cut wood, hammer, drill, etc.

We have spent a good part of our careers teaching these processes to the employees of organizations in a variety of industries, from manufacturing to financial services and even government and not-for-profits. And while the situations employees will apply these processes to may differ from organization to organization and between sectors, the same steps apply.

Once employees learn these processes and how to apply them to their work it can translate into a lifetime of achievement. Many employees who learn these skills early in their careers move up quickly, assuming increasing responsibilities and larger teams. We often meet senior executives who learned these processes earlier and credit this learning for their career success. In fact, a few years ago we worked with a plant manager of a major manufacturer who took training similar to ours earlier in his career. After our project, he moved to a larger role in another part of the parent company and we recently learned that he is returning to the division we worked with taking on greater responsibilities.

So while we agree with the sentiment of the Atlanta Journal Constitution article headline, please make sure you’re also giving employees the tools to solve their own problems. Otherwise, the results will be frustrating for both you and your employees.