Peter Bregman, an author and organizational coach whom I often read online, recently shared his newfound philosophy for handling problems in the workplace (and in his home):
- Identify the problem
- State what needs to happen
- Offer to help
This advice immediately resonated with me, particularly with reference to direct reports who fail to meet some agreed-upon expectation. He gave the example of an employee who turned in a sloppy report, to which he best would have responded, “Fred, this presentation made six points instead of one or two. I’m left confused. It needs to be shorter, more to the point, and more professional looking. Would it help if we talk about the point you’re trying to make?”
Wow! I thought, but… but… long ago I adopted the philosophy of not being the one to first provide a solution to an employee’s misstep. While holding people accountable is often necessary for the good of the company, too often course correction is a kneejerk managerial response to problems. While it is quite ego satisfying to be the one who always has the right (or final) answer, I’d taught myself to instead ask the employee what they thought a solution would be. Give them back the wheel, so to speak, and the opportunity to correct an off-course outcome. Therefore, I more likely would have replied, “Fred, this presentation confused me. How do you think you might make the main point of the presentation easier to follow?”
Bregman gave a second example of a CEO who is displeased with a department’s plan: “Folks, these plans don’t reflect the budget numbers we agreed on. Those numbers are non-negotiable. If you want, you can let me know where you are getting stuck and we can brainstorm solutions.” What a reasonable and supportive way to say that! Yet knowing myself, I more likely would have asked, after stating the problem, “How would you propose bringing your plans back in line with available resources?”
Bregman’s approach allows the employee the opportunity to regroup or to ask for help outright. I like that. I have long thought that by not providing an answer myself, I was helping the employee learn to problem solve independently, and to trust their own judgement as much as they might trust mine, but still, I very much like the notion of offering help, too. Bregman’s style (or rather, his wife’s style, since it was she who suggested it when he reacted to a daughter’s misstep with anger rather than reason) allows for a more collaborative and amiable solution.
Which of these two approaches would work best with your personal style? Or is there a better way you’ve found to adjust missteps?