Three hints on how to get people to sort their own problems out

Are you plagued with people bringing you issues to sort out? Do you find you are interrupted one minute by somebody complaining about their inability to get an answer from some other department or outside agency, the next by somebody bemoaning the inability of other team members to do anything without supervision, or even called during weekends or your holiday because there’s been a crisis only you can sort out?

Of course, there’s a bit of work to do on yourself before pointing the finger at others – not to do so would just be more of the same. But provided you can be sure that you have not somehow encouraged others to come to you constantly, you don’t have an addiction to being indispensable, and you are pretty sure these other people have the authority and the training to sort out their problems for themselves, how can you turn the situation around?

The answer very often lies in people’s attitude to accountability. You know someone is fully accountable when you ask them to do something, or they take on a role, and they pretty much handle everything there is to handle themselves, producing only solutions. If they cannot resolve something, they come to you, not with the problem but with a range of ideas for your approval.

So when you ask somebody to do something, here are three suggestions for improving the chances of their actually coming back with it done:

  1. Be very clear about what you are asking them to do, and give them also your conditions of satisfaction for the finished task. Ask them to repeat what you have asked for, and make sure you see them note it down in their to do list. If they are unclear or are going to wriggle, you’ll hear it in the way they respond and you can tackle any doubts or concerns right then.
  2. They may need a little coaching. The usual reason people fail to achieve something they are accountable for is because something in the external circumstances becomes impossible to get past. If you suspect that the person may, though willing, have a problem with circumstantial blocks, ask them up front what they see might get in the way of achieving the task. Use questions like, ‘what can you see might get in the way of your delivering this result?’, ‘how might you deal with that situation?’ and ‘who or what might help if that happens?’ Make it clear you expect them, not just to take on the task, but to deal with any hurdles that arise without necessarily coming back to you for help straight away.
  3. When people fail to deliver, always debrief them: ‘what got in the way?’, ‘how might you have handled that differently?’, ‘what have you learned, and what will you do differently in future?’

This way, you’ll gradually train those around you that accepting accountability means accepting not just a task or a role, but also taking on everything it’s necessary to do and handle to make sure they personally deliver the result. Your role can evolve from first-resort troubleshooter to coach and enabler when the problem really does require your input. You’ll have more time, a more rewarding job and the satisfaction of knowing that you are training, developing and empowering the people around you. Job done.

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