One of my funniest conversations with my (now adult) children was the one we had last year about learning how to tie their shoes. My middle son had proclaimed at dinner that he didn’t learn to tie his shoes until college. He mentioned during a visit it because his girlfriend had teased him because the way he tied his shoes seemed…”unusual.”
I felt that pang of motherly guilt: how had I failed to teach my kids how to tie their own shoes!??
I was a busy, young, working Mom with 3 kids. I remember the challenge of getting us all out the door on time to school and work. The central issue was getting their shoes tied. It took FOREVER, and I would often in a rush bend over and tie their shoes for them to get us into the car. Eventually I discovered Velcro shoes, which made mornings a breeze. What’s not to love? Well, the direct consequence of me tying their shoes for them and buying Velcro shoes until high school was that they did not actually learn to tie them themselves. Until college.
If you love to solve problems, I bet you get my urge to bend down and tie the damn shoes. Just jump on in there and fix all the things. You probably do it all the time in your company or with your team. A problem comes up, and you solve it, fix it, or take it on as yours.
Believe me, I get it.
Leaders and managers everywhere are often promoted into their roles because they have a history of being great problem solvers. There is nothing inherently wrong with fixing things, but, doing so creates its own set of problems. Most notably, your employees don’t learn to tie their own shoes.
Seriously, though, think about it. Don’t you want your employees to be able to use their creativity, discretion, and judgment to solve their own problems? Isn’t your life and your business better when they have what they need to do their jobs day-in and day-out without you? When they can do their job without you, it leaves you free to do the work that is your highest and best.
Going back to basics, me tying my kids’ shoes meant I had less time to do things like get myself dressed and ready. Make healthy lunches. Clear the snow off the car. Finish an email. Do all the things that were MY highest and best use.
At work, you surely have things to do that only you can do. Raise money. Talk to key customers. Hire talent. Plan product launches. Build relationships. The more you have to do your employees’ jobs for them, the less time and energy you have to do yours. Everyone has a highest and best use in your company.
Oh, and there is one more critical thing to ponder when you have the urge to “help” by fixing things yourself. When we jump in to solve problems for our employees, we convey a meta message: “I am doing this because you can’t. You need me to help you.”
That was the part of the family dinner that stung. I had unwittingly delivered a message to my kids of, “You can’t tie your own shoes. You need me to do it.” Not what I wanted and certainly not what you want when you are working hard as a leader to create autonomy, accountability, and results with your people.
So, when someone who works for you brings you a problem they face, what should you do if you are not jumping in to solve the thing?
Step One: Empathize (believe their perspective and feel with them!)
Step Two: Ask them what they think happens next
Step Three: Remind them you believe in them and that they will solve it
Step Four: If you just can’t help yourself, ask “Is there anything you need from me right now?”
When you let the people who work for you solve their own problems, you send the message that they’ve got this. When they mess up, let them fix it—that is how learning happens. The more your people make small errors as they learn, the less often problems turn catastrophic.
Letting them solve their own challenges at work also allows you to stay focused on your highest and best use, doing the things only you can do in the company.
Let them tie their own shoes.