It is often the case that managers find themselves spending a lot of time dealing with the problems of their team, rather than encouraging the team to solve their problems themselves.

Consider the following exchange, taking place between a manager and their directly-reporting supervisor:

“Hi John, I wonder if you can have a word with Fred. I have spoken to him a number of times about wearing his safety goggles in the lab and he still doesn’t wear them. I thought if you had a word with him he might take it more seriously from you?”

What happens if John accepts this problem from his direct report? He will become burdened with a task that is not his responsibility, and also his actions will ultimately undermine the authority of his supervisor, because the next time an incident occurs, Fred will not do anything until his bosses boss tells him to do so.

So what should a manager do?

The following is paraphrased from Orcken and Wass’ article in the Harvard Business Review (January 1990) and sums the issue up nicely.

‘At no time while you help someone with their problem must you let it become your problem. The instant their problem becomes yours, they will no longer have a problem and you will have one more than you had before. If you have 10 staff and you let them each give you a new problem to resolve every week, then in three months you will have over 100!’

To minimise “problem collection” managers should follow some simple guidelines:

  1. Don’t accept responsibility for the problems of your team members. This doesn’t mean that you won’t or don’t help them – it just means that the responsibility for their own problem stays with them.
  2. Meet with them to discuss the issue, preferably at the appointed time and to agree any resulting action.
  3. Help them to deal with the problem, so that they can resolve it themselves.
  4. Agree what action they will take and when you will review it with them. Follow up is vital to ensure that the problem is resolved satisfactorily.

It is also important to ensure that the individual understands the level of initiative they are expected to use. For example, the issue may be serious enough to warrant a “please look into it and come back with your recommendation before taking action”. Alternatively, the issue may warrant the following response “act on your own and tell me when it has been resolved”.

To prevent managers from being overworked and their staff becoming paralysed due to indecision, managers must ensure that they don’t become burdened with problems that aren’t theirs.