This article originally appeared on Forbes.
Many leaders feel overwhelmed by their many responsibilities and constant fire-fighting, and wonder why their people can’t just be more competent, confident and self-sufficient. Author and coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier explains that leaders don’t have to stand alone on center stage in a harsh spotlight, as if they must do everything themselves. Leaders are much more likely to be seen as effective and to be considered great leaders when their people do great things, rather when they make themselves the sole source of decisions and actions.
Bungay Stanier wants leaders to stop solving other people’s problems for them. His new book is The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever, and he recently gave a TEDx talk called How to Tame Your Advice Monster. He shares several approaches that will help leaders take up less space and less oxygen as the sole source of power and accomplishment, and encourage team members to become proficient agents of action.
Have the discipline to stay curious and ask better questions. Telling people what you want them to do and how you want them to do it doesn’t encourage them to come up with their own ideas. Whether your team is problem-solving or planning, employees will feel more empowered, smarter and self-sufficient when they do their own thinking than when leaders tell them what to think. Further, according to Bungay Stanier, “If you can start with just a little bit of curiosity… it means you’re probably going to have a better chance that you’re trying to solve the right problem. Because if you’re trying to solve the first problem that shows up, you’re probably …solving the wrong problem, because the first challenge is always never the real challenge.”
Bungay Stanier’s favorite question for maintaining curiosity and eliciting thoughtful, workable answers from team members is “What’s the real challenge here for you?” and he recommends asking it multiple times. “Often when people figure out what the real challenge is, they immediately know what needs to be done.”
Be more patient and a little less urgent. We’ve all worked with — or been — leaders who so need to have problems solved and tasks completed that they automatically jump in to save the day and take care of their team members rather than letting them figure things out on their own. Bungay Stanier acknowledges that this is a natural human tendency that makes leaders feel both noble and parental. These powerful feelings can create a habit-forming loop, in which leaders get involved and employees step back.
The risk, though, is that this tendency can feel infantilizing and demotivating to employees. And when senior leaders resolve problems on their own, they may not have crucial desk-level knowledge and awareness of the actual situation, so the same problem may need to be addressed multiple times. Teams that feel psychologically safe to share concerns and consider alternative ideas with their leaders are more likely to come up with workable resolutions.
Learn to tolerate the risk that comes with being less controlling. Many leaders enjoy being the person who’s in charge of the situation and has the right answers, but relying too frequently on these tendencies often backfires and retards employee growth. People learn by experimenting and then receiving feedback and even suffering natural consequences if their decisions don’t work out. When leaders are overcontrolling and prevent this experiential growth, team members’ autonomy and accountability both take a hit.
According to Bungay Stanier, “As you get more and more senior, what you should be realizing is how little you control. Your job is to influence… What you’re doing here is you’re lighting a candle. Creating more light is not a zero-sum game. You do give up some of what control you have, but when you give others that control and that autonomy and that confidence and that sense of empowerment, then you light another candle.”
Learn what motivates your people to change. Different team members will respond to different cues from their leaders. Bungay Stanier notes that some people are inspired by the possibility of upside rewards and accomplishment, while others want to avoid bad consequences of punishment or pain. Leaders who understand their employees’ inclinations will be able to ask more relevant leading questions. Then they can suggest outcomes that are more closely geared to employees’ preferences for ensuring obvious success vs. mitigating potential risks.
When leaders are intentionally less directive and more willing to give team members the space to come to their own conclusions and test out their own conclusions, most employees learn to think for themselves and reduce their reliance on leaders for all the answers. More problems will get solved, and leaders will be able to go on to higher order problems, where they should be spending their time and energy. As an added plus, the level of fire-fighting in the organization is likely to diminish.
Onward and upward —