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Want Your Employees to be Independent Thinkers?

At a recent Chief Executive Boards International meeting, a member was troubled by the fact that his day was constantly interrupted by employees, either in person or by cell phone, asking him for decisions.

Do you hear your key managers (or yourself) saying "I wish my employees would think for themselves" or "Most of my time is taken with answering questions I shouldn't have to answer"? These are symptoms of the "Answer Man" syndrome. It causes unnecessary interruptions, emails and phone calls and causes many managers undue frustration, distraction and stress.

What's the "syndrome" part? These are behaviors, and the manager (or yourself) is the "enabler" and reinforcer of these behaviors. The employees think that's what you want. The reasons are classic symptoms of "co-dependency". Consider the root causes:

  • When an employee comes to a manager with a question and the manager instantly answers, the employee has successfully upward-delegated responsibility for the outcome. It's no longer his issue -- he's just doing what his manager told him to do. Employees love this.
  • The manager's ego and self-esteem is enhanced by being seen (by both himself and others) as "The Answer Man". This can be a rewarding, fulfilling and self-affirming role for not only managers but also the classic "Go-to Guy" in an organization. Have you made yourself the "Go-to Guy"?

The problem with this co-dependency is obvious, particularly to the business owner or manager who wishes his business was growing and that he was spending less time working in the business and more time working on the business. The business becomes throttled by the capacity of the "Go-to-Guy" to decide everything.

How do you break this cycle? Simple. Practice this. Look for times and places to use this. The next time you get a question that an employee should be able to answer for himself, stop (this is the only hard part). Instead of answering the question, just say: "Jack, what would you have done if I hadn't been here (or available or answered the phone, etc.)?" Chances are, the answer will be close enough -- at least 80% as good as what you'd have said.

Then, you have two great opportunities -- motivation and coaching. Grab the motivation part by complimenting the employee profusely, to the point of his embarrassment (even better if others are present). Say "Jack that's a great plan, I knew you'd have a good idea, and I love it when you figure things out and just go get them done."

If you need to apply some "course correction" or you're still compelled to improve on Jack's plan, start that sentence with "and", not "but". Such as "And you could also ........" This reinforces, rather than negates ("but" is a negative, as in "rebuttal") Jack's self-esteem. It's coaching rather than criticism. Sooner or later, Jack will figure it out -- that you're not going to "play" and he's going to have to get his job done on his own.

Give this a try for a week. Then another week, until it becomes habit. Let me know how it works for you.


Terry Weaver
Chief Executive Boards International
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