Imagine that one of your employees walks into your office and says “Boss, we’ve got a huge problem with the ACME account; they’re angry and I think we might lose their business!” This is one of those situations that rightly spikes a leader’s blood pressure. But as much as the wrong response risks losing the ACME account, the wrong response also risks ruining the effectiveness, accountability and future growth of your employee. So, in responding to the problem our employee just brought us, we’ve got a few different options, from worst to best.
The best response to our employee’s problem is a simple seven words:
What’s your plan for solving this issue?
This might sound too simple, so let me explain why these seven words are so powerful. I studied 27,048 executives, managers and employees in a report called “The Risks of Ignoring Employee Feedback.”
One of the big discoveries was that only 23% of people say that when they share their work problems with their leader, he/she ‘Always’ responds constructively. By contrast, 17% say their leader ‘Never’ responds constructively. And overall, more than half of employees feel that their leader doesn’t consistently respond constructively when they share their work problems.
Even more shocking is the discovery that if someone says their leader ‘Always’ responds constructively when they share their work problems, they’re about 12 times more likely to recommend the company as a great employer.
Now, when an employee brings us a work problem, asking them “What’s your plan for solving this issue?” is one of the best ways to respond constructively. Why?
Well, we sure don’t want to blame the messenger by saying “How could you have let this happen, you know how important this account is to us!” While this is a terrible response, and almost nobody would openly admit to actually responding this way, we all know that a great many leaders regularly hurl similar accusations at their employees.
Nor do we want to relegate the employee to the sidelines and insert ourselves into the situation by saying “I’ll take this over myself and I’m going to call ACME directly, I’ll get this straightened out.” Doing that enfeebles the employee, destroys their confidence, eliminates the chance for them to evidence accountability and proactivity, and commences a parent-child cycle. Plus, it limits the leader’s growth potential because they will forever be trapped doing every task and solving every problem in their current role, rather than growing their team and strategically elevating themselves.
By contrast, when we ask the employee “what’s your plan for solving this issue?” the employee is developing and honing their critical thinking skills. And they’re learning how to take initiative and to be proactive. And the leader isn’t getting drawn into every problem that comes along.
My study, “How To Build Trust In The Workplace,” surveyed more than 7,000 people all about why people do, or don’t, trust their leaders. And through regression analysis, my team and I discovered that the number one driver of whether an employee will trust their boss is the extent to which employees felt that their boss responded constructively when they shared their work problems.
So not only does asking employees “what’s your plan for solving this issue?” empower them, it also creates much greater trust between boss and employee. Plus, when the employee brings a problem, if a boss blames or enfeebles the employee, what are the chances that the employee will continue to discuss problems? Probably slim to none. And when employees stop bringing problems, leaders tend to get fired.
Now, initially this approach may take the leader a little longer than blaming or enfeebling the employee. After all, it may take a few minutes to sit back and listen to the employee’s ideas and their plans for solving this issue. But if a leader spends more time with their employees, especially when they’re being so constructive, employee engagement, inspiration and even innovation will benefit.
The median time employees spend interacting with their boss is approximately three hours per week. That’s only half of what they need to enjoy optimal performance. My study “Optimal Hours with the Boss” shows that employees who spend six hours a week interacting with their direct leader are 29% more inspired, 30% more engaged, 16% more innovative and 15% more intrinsically motivated than those who spend only one hour per week. So, investing a bit more time with employees will pay handsome rewards.
Finally, there may be times when an employee truly has no response when you ask, “what’s your plan for solving this issue?” And if that’s the case, you can certainly provide some help and guidance. But again, be careful of so dominating the conversation that the employee doesn’t develop the kind of critical thinking, innovation, problem-solving and resilience skills that will enable them to solve future problems.
Mark Murphy is the founder of Leadership IQ, a New York Times bestselling author and teaches the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently.