Imagine I wasn’t here

Your team may be simply looking to run through their ideas with you as a way of confirming their thinking about a particular issue – rather than wanting to have it solved for them, writes Douglas Lang.

When I was still a fairly new manager, in a former life, I often found myself in a position where a member of my team would come to me with a problem or a question about something that I knew next to nothing about. 

My excuse at the time (and I’m sticking to it) was that I had been promoted quickly through the ranks and therefore hadn’t had time to learn all the ins and outs of everything the team dealt with.

As a result I was often unable to provide the kind of direct response that I might have done in an area where I was very familiar with the subject / issue. So, instead of providing an answer, I resorted to asking them some more questions and for their thoughts about what we should do.

I never failed to be surprised how often, at the end of a five-minute conversation with me asking questions and them coming up with ideas, they walked away having either solved the issue themselves or with some new ideas on things to look at as possible solutions – without me actually giving them an answer.

One of my favourite questions in this kind of interaction was to ask: ”What would you do if I wasn’t here?” In response the team member would regularly reel off a list of the actions they would take.

Assuming they sounded plausible, more often than not I’d end the conversation by encouraging them to take these steps and let me know how things turned out. After all, they were much closer to the issue than I was, and probably had more specific and relevant knowledge anyway, so who was I to disagree?

I’ve found that often staff are simply looking to run through their ideas with their manager as a way of confirming their thinking about a particular issue – rather than wanting to have it solved for them.

Giving them the space and permission to run through their thoughts can be both empowering and confidence-building as well as a way of reducing their reliance on you to solve issues. 

Over time, as their confidence increases in their own ability to deal with things, you’ll probably find them coming to you less and less as they realise they have the ability to deal with many issues themselves.

So, in summary, to build confidence in your team members and free up time for yourself in the long run:

  • Resist the temptation to jump in too quickly to ask your question again or to provide a solution.
  • Ask for their ideas on what to do.
  • Ask: “What would you do if I wasn’t here?”  



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