I remember the first extended vacation I tried to take as a team lead. Things did not go well. I wasn’t even a full day into my relaxation time before the phone started ringing - production issues. I was so frustrated that someone else couldn’t figure out the problem. This was my fault. I spent too much energy solving every little issue that came up that my team didn’t have enough exposure to some areas of the system. So, when one of them crashed during my vacation, nobody was prepared to pick up the slack.
I realized that I got into this mess because of my incessant need to fix things. As soon as my brain recognizes a problem, it immediately goes into solution mode, where I shut out the rest of the world until I have a fix in mind. I do this in both personal and work settings - for better or worse. Once I have a solution, I move forward towards a resolution. The sooner I can resolve the issue, the better.
This was a great strength as an individual contributor. However, as you start to transition into a more managerial position, this pinball mode of operation is rarely effective - especially when you are dealing with issues your team has encountered. For instance, when someone on my team comes to me with a technical problem, I was very quick to either tell them the answer outright or point them in the right direction.
Over time, I’ve realized that this isn’t helpful for the folks on my team, or to me. First, solving the problem for my teammate forces me to context switch off of what I am currently working on in order to focus on a new problem. Second, I am robbing my colleague of the opportunity to learn something new by going through the journey of solving a problem they are not familiar with. Worse still, my actions make me even more dependent on the project’s success - which does not scale well.
The solution I’ve found after years of failing in this area is to simply wait a little bit. Let your team come to you with issues, offer an encouraging word or two: “that sucks” or “yeah, I thought that might come up” or “Thanks for letting me know, I have faith in your ability to solve it”. Or, simply don’t respond for a few hours and see what they come up with on their own.
My intent here is to use this tactic as another arrow in my quiver of management tools. It’s not a silver bullet that should be applied in all situations. However, I would argue that waiting is applicable more often than you realize.
I suppose this advice is obvious to some, but I accidentally learned it. Someone on my team asked for help on a particular problem early in the day, but I didn’t end up getting back to him until much later. To my surprise, he already figured out the problem and was well into his next task. I remember feeling a huge sense of relief because that was one less thing I had to do that day. Win, win.
Taking a more passive approach to problem solving can be difficult - especially for those of us who are assertive by nature. However, the short term tension will result in better results and a more effective team. Next time you are posed with a similar situation, try waiting before getting involved and watch your team exceed your expectations.