Do You Solve Problems For Your People?

Solving your team’s problems for them automatically makes you responsible for the problem. Asking them questions about the problem that will help them to solve it, automatically makes them responsible.

I like to talk quite a bit about asking questions of your team, rather than giving them the answers, and solving their problems for them. The reason for that is, questions is what a highly effective leader relies on.

They use questions as a tool to get their message across to their people. They use questions as a tools to gain buy-in from their people. They use questions as a tool to increase their influence with their people.

1. What Questions Do You Ask?

When I learned, and decided to stop trying to solve problems for my team members, I always had the same question to whatever their question was. My first question was always, “What’s the problem?” My team would get confused by that question because they think they have just told me.

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But, asking “What’s the problem?” made them think again and dig a little deeper. I wouldn’t stop asking that question until they had thought a little deeper, and come back to me with the actual problem.

A lot of the time, my question should have been, “Who is the problem?” because the problem did usually start with the person seeking help. The only real problem was, they didn’t know that they were the problem.

And, they didn’t know that to solve the problem, they had to think a lot deeper than what they were thinking, or if they were thinking at all.

After a while, the team knew that if they came to me with a problem, I would ask them the same question every time, “What’s the problem?” So, they did their thinking beforehand, and when they did that, they realised that they didn’t need to come to me anymore because they had already solved the problem.

I must admit, I did find it quite fun when the team would come to me with problems, and I would ask them, “What’s the problem?” because I would go and observe them thinking deeper about the situation, and it gave me a sense of pride.

It made me feel good that I had prompted my team to think a lot deeper and solve their own problems. It was a very simple, but very effective thing to do.

2. Different Kinds Of Questions

When I was a leader of a team in the railway, we were responsible for solving train problems, especially when they broke down in service. So, if I saw a team member trying to solve a train problem while sitting at his desk, I would change my question from, “What’s the problem?” to “Where’s the problem?”

If they were going to get to the root cause of an engineering problem on a train, wouldn’t it be better to be exactly where the problem was?

When I asked the team that question, they knew immediately to leave the office and go to where the problem was. I used to do this myself when I was a young engineer, but in those days it was rare you could get out of the office because the manager always wanted to keep his eye on us.

3. Casting Your Vision For The Future

However, a highly effective leader is very visual in how he/she thinks. That is why casting a vision of the future for the team is so important.

They also know how important it is to see a problem, not just rely on spreadsheets, data, and information being told or sent to them. Whenever I got the opportunity to see a problem, I knew I had a much better chance of solving it.

So, if you have a team member who is responsible for a problem, then you need to give them the best chance they can at solving it. That means letting them go to the problem. Don’t keep them in the office so you can keep your eye on them. Give them the freedom, and the tools to solve their own problems, wherever they may be.

If you don’t give them this freedom and opportunity to solve their problems, then you will ultimately be responsible because you are responsible for your team member.

I liked to ask my team that when they think they have solved a problem, they should report back to me with a report or presentation. This would give me the opportunity to ask more questions, and get my team thinking even deeper, and assure me that the team have done everything they could.

The type of question I would ask during a presentation are, “How do you know that the problem is solved?” If they could answer that question well, then I was satisfied. However, if they answered me with, “I just know.”

Then that would not be acceptable. Especially if they had seen the problem and they were just relying on information passed to them by somebody else.

There are far too many big decisions being made in organisations that are based on poor data, poor information, and hearsay. They are the main problems in a lot of organisations throughout the world.

Big decisions need to be made together as a team, and based on actually seeing and solving problems in the right way. We cannot make decisions based on gut feelings, or information we found in the system from a year ago.

I know it takes a lot more time to give your team the opportunity to solve problems correctly. But, take it from me, it takes a lot more time when you make a decision on something based on poor information, and you have to start all over again or backtrack.

Asking questions until you cannot ask anymore is the only way you can be 100% sure everything has been done to solve a problem.

4. Showing Your Team Respect

As I have said before, when you ask your team questions, and you are helping them to solve their own problems, you are showing your team respect.

They will feel a lot more valued, and will follow your lead by asking each other questions when they are collaborating on problems. When collaborating on problems, and asking questions of each other, they are showing each other respect too.

Earlier, I told you that one of my old managers wouldn’t let me go to see problems on trains in service because he wanted to keep his eye on us. Well, this same manager would often ask us questions too. He would often ask, “Why are you doing that Tom?” or “Who told you to work on that?”

Whenever he would ask those questions, I would feel nervous or intimidated because what he actually meant was, “What you are doing is wrong.” Or, “I don’t want you to work on that.” So, they were asking the wrong questions.

When I started to ask questions, I had a completely different outlook. I thought like a child did. Why? You might be asking. Well, if a child asks you, “Why are you doing that?” they do not want you to stop what you are doing, they actually want to know so that they can learn from you.

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That is exactly the frame of mind I have. I actually do want to learn from my team. I have no interest in getting them to stop what they’re doing, or telling them that they are doing it wrong.

When I explain to my team why I am asking them, “Why are you doing that in that way?” they are a lot more relaxed and open to explaining it to me. They know that I do genuinely want to learn from them.

It’s a great feeling when you begin to see your team asking their teammates the same kinds of questions, and because they genuinely want to learn. They do not want to stop them from doing anything, or blame them in anyway.

Problems are there to be solved. But, how do you solve a problem? Should you first see the problem before you can solve it? Or, should you work from information and data that you got from somebody else? It’s your choice.

I welcome hearing how this post has influenced the way you think, the way you lead, or the results you have achieved because of what you’ve learned in it. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me by commenting below.

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All the best,

Tom (Lead, Grow, Influence)

16 thoughts on “Do You Solve Problems For Your People?

  1. Hi Tom

    I loved your article. I myself look over a team and this helped me change my perspective on approaching issues. An excellent read. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Russ,

      Thank you for your comment. Really pleased you found the article helpful.

      I’m so happy you have taken something from my article, and I hope you put into practice what you have learned to change your perspective. Let me know how it goes with your new approach, and if I can help in anyway then please don’t hesitate to contact me.

      All the best,

      Tom

  2. Hey Tom.
    Another great post from you. I’m not a leader unfortunately but I love when people show interest in my problems. Especially at work, just like you said, it makes me more think about it and the ways how to solve that problem.
    I’m trying to take the same approach in life. As Dale Carnegie said in his most famous book: You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you.
    Best regards
    Srdjan

    1. Hi Srdjan,

      Thank you for your comment, and thank you for returning and engaging.

      You are so right. Being interested in people rather than making people be interested in you will get you so much further in life. Serving others is what fulfills me, and I am sure is what fulfills you too. I try and serve someone every day, and if I can do that I know that I have worked on myself and I have helped others. That is how I come home feeling fulfilled.

      Keep returning and keep engaging.

      All the best,

      Tom

  3. Wonderful article. I resonated with many things you have said in this article.

    As a newbie software engineer sometimes you tend to rely on senior, more experienced coworkers when you have a problem. The best way to fix this is to do exactly what you say, take a step back and ask yourself “What is the problem?” & “Where is the problem?”. More often than not, when you do this, you find clarity and end up fixing the problem yourself.

    Many times I have produced my best work when I ask questions until I can’t ask any more and so I find this quote to be all too true: “Asking questions until you cannot ask anymore is the only way you can be 100% sure everything has been done to solve a problem”.

    Thank you for your words of wisdom.

    1. Hi Jake,

      Thank you for your comment, and for your kind words.

      I am so pleased you found this article helpful, and I really hope you keep on asking questions until you can’t ask anymore. You do not have to be in a leadership position to lead and influence others. So, when it comes to solving your next problem at work, keep asking others the right “open” questions, and think of the “5-whys” too. When you have exhausted all your questions, you and your team will have everything you need to solve the problem together.

      All the best,

      Tom

  4. Good post. I see problems as opportunities to gain knowledge or overcome issues. Don’t let issues overcome us, get batter at what you do.
    Leadership is learned over time, not taught, its more nurtured than taught. You can give people direction but hitting them with statemented words like teamwork, vision, impact, truth, honesty etc do not make an impact.

  5. Hi Tom,

    Interesting take on solving problems. I am a process worker and work with machinery everyday. Occasionally I have to train people on how to use the machinery.

    I found the best way for people to learn the job that I am doing is to be hands on, but only after a day or so of observing me.

    I can find that this technique of asking questions useful when training new people. It will help them think a little deeper, and maybe they will learn quicker.

    As a side note whenever I have told people what I am doing I have explained why. Too many managers just tell people what to do and not explain why.

    Do you think this is a problem? I think so because people will just work aimlessly through the job, but maybe I should ask questions when I’m explaining a process.

    1. Hi Owain,

      Thank you for your comment. Really pleased you found the article valuable.

      It is a problem when managers tell people what to do. A leader shows people what to do by leading by example, and absolutely the reason why.

      You are right in that.

      Thanks again and please keep engaging.

      All the best,

      Tom

  6. Yes, exactly, ask questions, give them their freedom to think and do things independently and show some respect! Nicely written post. I remamber back in days as a manager I did so many mistakes, but I always let people to do their job independently. Trust is something really essential in any job.

    1. Hi Olga,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m really pleased that you found it valuable.

      I appreciate you sharing your experiences of when you were a manager and making mistakes. I have made many mistakes when I have been in leadership positions, but it’s so important that we learn from them.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  7. This is really great information even if you don’t have a team. The way you ask questions, determines so many factors as you have stated here. Trying to show someone a better avenue to the solution by asking the question differently is key for their future. Showing respect within your questions, makes confident team members and leaders. Very insightful way of managing. Thank you.

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s great that you find the article helpful.

      Asking questions is so important in leadership. You are right, you do not need to have your own team to be a leader or practice leadership principles in life. Especially when asking the right questions.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

  8. Hi Tom!
    Thanks for this post and great information! I agree with you that it is good to keep your team stay motivated and dig deeper to solve problems. Some people really want someone, who solves their problems without lots of efforts. But if the person who is hardworking and realy needs advice comes up to you with the question, and you just ask him “What is the problem”?, maybe he/she will feel for the first time embarassed and intimidated. I think maybe it is good if you know well your team, to have a different approach for everyone? This is just my idea:) I know that is to be a leader is a very hard work and sometimes it is quiet difficult to stay calm.
    Thanks again for sharing this post!
    All the best,
    Alex

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m really happy that for found some great information from this article.

      I appreciate your insights, and that asking the right questions when helping our people solve problems is so important. That is how we don’t solve their problems for them.

      Keep returning, keep engaging and keep leading.

      All the best,

      Tom

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