When someone puts the monkey on your back: 5 tips to help your team members solve problems

I used to have a boss that had a sign on her desk: “No monkeys accepted.” I would make a face every time I saw that sign as I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Finally, I asked her the meaning behind the sign. She told me that she will not allow anyone to transfer a problem from them to her. She is there to provide counsel, to listen, to ask questions, but she refuses to assume ownership over the problem. She refuses to allow someone to put the monkey on her back.

Ah! That did make sense. It wasn’t something I really thought about early in my career. I really didn’t understand the nuances between an employee, me, and a manager, her, and what roles we needed to play. Coming out of college, this was a foreign relationship to me. Sure…I had jobs working retail where I was told what to do and basically how to do it. I even interned and temped at a few organizations, all the while being told what to do.

Moving into the professional world, having my own processes and projects to manage with a manager giving oversight was new to me. In the past, if I had a problem, I would go to the supervisor and she would solve it for me. In the corporate world, some managers still do that but others, the good ones, help their team solve their own problems.

There have been a few times where I have had an employee come to me with a problem and I have had to fight the urge to take it on. Anyone with the “fixer” gene will have this issue. You know the fixers in your life. Maybe you are one too. You cannot listen to someone expressing their problems without jumping in and solving them immediately. We can’t have ambiguity or pain; we must get clarity and ease the pain.

Even in my personal life, I fix things. Be it a broken light switch or a situation with a family member. Nothing is beyond fixing. But, you must ask yourself, is it your problem to fix? Is the person actually asking you how to fix it? (A very important question!) And, even if they are, should you be the one to fix it?

These are tough questions for those who want to help. I don’t mean to compare managing adults to parenting but there are some similarities in that we are all working with human behavior and emotion….just at different ages. When your teenage daughter comes to you with a problem, do you just take care of it or do you help educate her on what to do and have her do it? The latter builds self-sufficiency. The same is true with adults. When your team member comes to you with a problem, wouldn’t it be better for his growth, success and self-sufficiency, if you helped him solve it instead of solving it yourself?

Below are five tips on how to help others solve their problems and keep the monkeys at bay.

  1. Be there. Yeah….sounds obvious. I have seen managers go the opposite direction of fixing all the way to not listening to problems. I had a challenging situation once with a peer higher than me. One senior manager told me to fix the problem myself. He wanted nothing to do with it. Ouch. Perhaps I was the one to fix it; maybe, I should have been able to do this myself. But, I didn’t feel confident enough to handle it. To not have him there to help me was challenging. I went to him for advice. As soon as he learned I had a “problem”, the door was slammed shut. Don’t accept monkeys but allow your team members to voice their concerns. Don’t slam the door.
  2. Ask if they want your help. This is a classic one to remember. Ask your team member if they want your help or are they just venting. Sometimes, people need an outlet to share frustration. Especially in these times, I let people do that. To do nothing but gripe and complain is not healthy. However, to vent about a particular situation is normal. I follow up with….is there a problem you need to solve here? Sometimes, the problem is finding a way to accept a decision or something they deem unfair. Before you jump in to even ask questions and help them solve the problem, find out what they want from you. Sometimes, it is just an empathetic ear.
  3. Solve it together. The key here is the word “together”. When someone does ask for my help, the first thing I ask (not tell) is what do they think about the situation? What do they think is the root cause? What have they tried already? (My hope with this question is they have already tried to solve this.) What do they think we can do to solve the problem? If you lead with questions, 9 times out 10, the person will have some inkling of what to do. They just needed to talk it out; they needed a sounding board to confirm the direction they want to go is a good one. If they are truly stumped, then work it through together. Ask more questions, offer suggestions, and work through scenarios.
  4. Keep actions with the problem holder. Working through it together is more helpful than diving in and solving the problem for them. Whatever you decide together to do, keep the actions with your team member unless there is something only you can do if the problem is severe. Create a mini-action plan or approach to solve the problem but ensure your team member has skin in the game and actually works to resolve it himself.
  5. Follow up. Another item that sometimes gets overlooked is to follow up to see if what you all decided worked. If it didn’t work out, you may not need to follow up. They may come to you proactively to get more advice. If something does work, it is also important to note that it did, what worked and to give praise for solving the problem. Positive reinforcement, at any age, helps to build self-sufficiently and confidence for the next time a problem arises.

Problems can be simple or tricky. Sometimes, we need to get involved if the problem is challenging enough or we may even need to escalate. Start with asking questions, working it together and have your team member try out some actions first. Provide guidance, empathy, and support but keep your back clear of monkeys.

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