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Grow Your Staff into a Team of Creative Problem Solvers

As a manager, your employees will come to you with situations they don't know how to handle. When they approach you during these times, they are looking to you to give them the solution to the problem. This is understandable with big problems that have significant monetary and time consequences, or that may have a detrimental impact on your company's standing in the eyes of your professional community.

However, often the problems your employees bring you are neither this momentous nor are they so potentially damaging. Most of the time your staff members could come up with creative solutions on their own if encouraged to do so. The recurring problem I see is employees who do not take initiative in proactive problem solving. Why? Either they haven't been told that this is preferable to bringing their problems to the supervisor, or they have attempted to be proactive in solving a problem in the past and have been told their ideas or solutions were irrelevant. When the latter is the case, what motivation do they have to continue coming up with ideas if the boss tells them their ideas are unworkable?

Often, the problems we experience with our employees are ones we unwittingly help create. In the case we've been discussing, if employees continually look to their supervisors to solve their problems it's probably because the supervisors have solved their problems in the past. Rather than encouraging them to find solutions, these supervisors hand their employees solutions. This behavior drains the creativity from the employee and results in frustration, which leads to reluctance-and eventually refusal-to even attempt to look for solutions.

Part of the reason many managers "solve" their staff's problems for them is in the interest of time. Managers tend to have more experience with solving problems and have already discovered solutions that work. Rather than cultivating an employee's ability to think creatively and allowing time for perhaps one or two unworkable solutions before finding a workable one, the manager will just fix it. The result is a staff that brings even the smallest problems to the manager and a manager who becomes frustrated because the staff cannot work independently. This may feel like parenting a group of small children.

Taking from the example of children, children experience a growing sense of confidence and autonomy when they are encouraged to work problems out on their own. True, not all of their solutions are successful; nor are they necessarily the most cost-effective. But when allowed to attempt to solve their own situations, these children can grow in confidence and experience a greater sense of willingness to try first, ask later. Ultimately, they generally grow into autonomous adults who can think creatively and find workable solutions.

While our employees are no longer children, they need similar encouragement to take a step on their own to find solutions. The most creative, entrepreneurial, and forward-thinking companies are those that are willing to find new ways of doing things rather than sticking with the tried-and-true of their competitors.

Cultivate Their Problem Solving Skills

If you experience frustration at the level of problem-solving ability of your staff, make a commitment to yourself to encourage each individual to find their own solutions first. Do this by asking questions. Questions that begin with how and what are excellent for drawing out an employee's thoughts on a situation and encouraging that employee to think independently for a solution:

? What have you already tried?

? How would you like to solve this problem?

? What would you do if you were me?

These are excellent questions you can ask to begin encouraging your staff to think proactively. A huge element to making this strategy successful is that your staff must be able to trust you with their ideas. In other words, if encouragement to solve their problems independently is a new experience for your staff, they will probably be uncomfortable with it at first and reluctant to step out on their own. You must be willing to withhold your own suggestions-even if you know your way is the best way-and allow them to stumble. Encourage them when they do make efforts to solve their own problems, but resist the urge to fix it for them.

Encouraging them through asking questions and giving them time to come up with their own ideas will help increase their level of trust and ultimately reduce the number of times they bring problems to you without having first tried to solve them themselves.

About the author:

Dr. Tracy Peterson Turner works with businesses that want to improve communication among managers, staff, and clients. She is an expert in written and oral communication. Her presentations and workshops help individuals and corporations meet their communication goals. Find out more about Tracy and her company, Managerial Impact, by visiting

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