NextGen Know-How: How to Get Employees to Handle Problems Themselves

hammer and leather belt with pouches full of tools on wood surface
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

4 minutes

Learn to lead and develop your team by facilitating, not fixing.

When I first became a manager, I thought my job was to give instructions and answer questions. No one sat down with me and set expectations on how to effectively lead a team. I wasn’t provided with any leadership training. One day, I was just given the responsibility to supervise someone.

So, I became a fixer. She had a problem; I would fix it. After all, that was my job, right? Over time, my employee would interrupt me more and more often to get her immediate questions answered. Sometimes she just wanted to “run things by me” to make sure she was making the right decision. Looking back now, I realize that I perpetuated this issue by always having the answers to her questions. I would quickly take care of the problem for her and then try to get back to my other, higher priority tasks. But by quickly answering her questions, I was teaching her to upward delegate all problems to me.

Upward delegation is a challenge that can keep you from focusing on more strategic or important work as a leader. Upward delegation is when your employee relies on you to solve problems and fix issues for them. They shift the ownership to you, their manager, instead of solving the problem on their own. And it’s not always their fault. As managers, most of us were taught that our job is to do just that—fix problems and handle issues—and we, in turn, teach that to our team members.

The challenge is, if your time is spent on constant interruptions and “fixing,” you will rarely find the time to work on your most important key result areas and priorities for your role. Your day will be filled with a barrage of issues, interruptions and emergencies. The more employees you manage, the more challenging it will become to be successful in your role.

If you consistently have employees who upward delegate to you, there is a simple fix that can make all the difference in getting them to take ownership and think for themselves. How we handle these interruptions and issues makes all the difference in how employees respond.

As leaders, we need to shift from being fixers to facilitators.

Fixers handle problems, emergencies and other issues themselves. Facilitators facilitate for others the ownership and solution of their own problems.

Let’s say your team member, Jake, approaches you with a problem. Instead of telling him how to handle the problem (fixing), you ask him, “What do you think?” or “What options have you thought of?”

This takes the ownership of the problem off of you and puts it back onto Jake. Now Jake has to come up with an approach to solving the problem. You are teaching Jake to think through the problem himself so he can become independent and self-sufficient instead of relying on you.

If Jake truly doesn’t know how to solve the problem, that’s where you as the leader can facilitate by coaching him through the issue. Some possible follow up questions might be:

  • Where do you think you can find the answer to this question?
  • What is one option you could try?

There are times that you may need to offer guidance or perspective to help him learn how to think critically through these issues. The point is to not just quickly solve the problem for your employees, which perpetuates a cycle of you fixing and them not having to think for themselves. These situations are often opportunities to build confidence, critical thinking skills and knowledge by taking a few minutes to facilitate rather than fix. This is how we develop future leaders and stronger teams—by taking a different approach than being the keeper of all the knowledge and answers.

As leaders, we do not need to know all the answers. Our job is to influence and facilitate the discovery of the answers, so your team members can solve their own problems. I guarantee that if you try this approach, you will cut down on interruptions over time, develop more independent employees and finally have time to focus on the priorities that will truly help you to become more successful and make a bigger impact at work.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or

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