How Managers should solve problems by letting the Team Sort It Out

Managers are likely to get in situations where they allow teams to abdicate responsibility for solving their own problems; this is when they fail to understand their true role as a manager. The day you become a manager, the arithmetic changes and your success is no longer measured by how many problems you solve. Instead, your role shifts to building a team that solves problems. With effective managers, escalation should be an aberration that they accept rarely and thoughtfully.

Here are some questions to ask oneself and principles to follow in order to make sure that you’re not stepping in where you shouldn’t.

Who should own this problem? Change the way you approach problems presented to you. Before asking, “How do we solve the problem?” pause and consider, “Who should own this problem?” Balancing the need to solve a present issue with consideration for how and who, will influence future behavior.

Do it now or do it right? At times, it’s appropriate to allow a direct report to escalate the problem if urgency trumps process. But even under such circumstances, one should engage the team in the process as much as one can, so as to be more a partner and less the hero.

What is the least I can do? If your team is struggling to solve a problem they should rightfully own, always ask, “What is the least I can do?” Find the lowest level of initiative for yourself while exhorting your team members to act at the highest level they are capable of. Then, use it as a teaching moment to help your team learn to do it without you the next time.

Content, pattern, or relationship? Think of the problems presented to you at three different levels: content, pattern, and relationship. 

  • Content problems are those where the issue is an immediate concern.
  • Pattern problems exist when the problem isn’t the single issue itself, but when it’s a recurring one.
  • Relationship problems happen when the issue has to do with fundamental concerns like competence, trust, or respect. Relationship problems generally call for a change in relationship structure or policy.

In general, employees should solve most content and pattern problems on their own – this should certainly be the case for problems within the team. In a healthy organization, and with strong teams, content and pattern problems outside of the team should also be, generally, solved by whomever experiences them – they should not be escalated. However, if the team has addressed the problem and does not see an appropriate change, then escalation is warranted. Ideally, those member who escalate problems to a manager would stay involved.

It takes two to escalate. Long-time IT veteran Tom O’Dea has a policy he calls “mutually agreed escalation.” Tom is always willing to get involved, but only when all parties agree they need his help to solve the problem at hand. This extra requirement encourages team members to make going to him the last rather than first resort.

As a manager, your primary contribution is creating high-performance teams and the primary driver of high performance in a team and organization is a culture of peer accountability.

Escalations are sometimes appropriate, but if handled incorrectly they eat away at this crucial norm. These five principles can help you judge if and how to allow escalations in ways that builds rather than weakens your team.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes that effective managers focus on solving problems not by themselves but by building teams who know how to tackle and solve problems. Anytime you become the hero by solving a problem, you risk teaching your team that without you, the situation is hapless. Escalations should be aberrations that managers accept rarely and thoughtfully.

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