Can Your Staff Think for Themselves?


Here's a common complaint I hear from managers all over the world:

"People don't think for themselves anymore! They come to me with problems, not solutions. They want me to give them the answer. I don't get the important things done because I spend my time solving their problems!"

Does this sound familiar? A lot of managers tend to blame Gen Y, but the reality is that it isn't necessarily generational. In fact it might be embedded in your team or organisational culture. And you, as their manager, might just be the main culprit.


Doing the Easiest Thing

Humans are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We stay away from those things that are hard, or might have adverse consequences. And we engage in things that are comfortable and easy. To put it in more simple terms - we are hardwired to do the easiest thing whenever possible.

But we, as managers, have a huge impact on our peoples behaviour and, in particular, on what seems like the easiest behavioural choice.

So here are two common mistakes that managers make in regards to this problem, the reasons they make those mistakes, and what they can do to change.


Mistake #1 - Making it too easy

Remember - people do the easiest thing. What's easier than someone giving them the answer?! Managers tend to complain that their staff want all the answers, but then proceed to give them just that - all the answers.

Why you do it:

It's easier for you too. It's also quicker and you know you're going to get the outcome that you want. Coaching takes a lot of time and effort. Giving the answer is quick and simple.

What to do instead:

Make it more difficult to ask for solutions. Ask them some leading questions and then, armed with that information, send them away to come back later with a solution. Some questions to ask might be:


  • What would you do if I wasn't here?

  • Where else might you be able to find the answer?

  • If you were the client what would be important to you?

  • Have you considered x,y or z?


Even better - ask the same questions, or go through the same framework, every time. Your goal is for them to eventually ask themselves those same questions BEFORE they come to you. Repetition helps embed these questions in their way of thinking.


Mistake #2 - Not Celebrating 'Good' Mistakes

Behaviours are reinforced through reward and positive feedback. And behaviours are also extinguished through negative consequences. There is a real possibility that your staff have learned NOT to solve problems by themselves - maybe they got it wrong in the past and that led to some consequences. Or maybe there is some urban legend floating around about someone that 'got it wrong'. We are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain - if you are the person that comes up with the solution then they can't get in trouble.

Why you do it:

Most managers think this is part of their staff 'just doing their job' and doesn't need recognition. But you have to realise that, as a manger, it is also your job to build the behaviours that you want to see. Also, most managers already know the answer the their employees' questions, so again it becomes easier to give the solution than to make the staff member work for it.

What to do instead:

Celebrate 'Good' Mistakes. Recognise and acknowledge when people have tried something for themselves. Even if it didn't work, celebrate their effort. Do this in front of the team and not only does the person feel even better about their 'accomplishment' - the team also starts to recognise this as a positive behaviour.

These are two very simple things but they make a big impact.

Before you blame your staff for not thinking for themselves, think about how you contribute to the problem. If you give them the answers and fail to reinforce the positive behaviours, then maybe you need to rethink your approach.

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