I’ve been in the team lead role over at Automattic for just about a year now. One particular weakness I’ve noticed over the past year is my desire to provide answers to people on my team.
Need help setting a goal? I have a few examples I’ll toss your way.
Not sure what to do next for a certain project? I have some opinions.
In my mind, my primary job as team lead is to make my teammates’ lives a bit easier by removing obstacles, solving problems, and setting a clear path forward for the team. So, when someone approaches me with a question or problem, my immediate thought is, “Alright, I have to come up with a solution.” This can be helpful, but when it happens all the time, it’s a problem.
Having All The Answers Hurts Your Team
First, let’s talk about why this behavior exists in the first place and why it’s a rotten habit for leads. From my perspective, this occurs for a few reasons:
- You feel powerful having answers.
- Generally, if you’re leading a team, you’re a high performer in some sense. As a result, you have opinions on how things should be done.
- Giving answers makes you feel valuable in some way.
- You just want to solve problems so when presented with a problem, your default is to give answers.
It goes without saying, but in 99% of cases, leaders aren’t doing this intentionally to make themselves feel better. It just happens without them even realizing it. Here’s a simple example:
Person A: I’m working out the logistics of how we can build 100 widgets by Saturday.
Lead: Cool! That’s exciting stuff. Since we have 5 days left, you could set a target of at least 20 widgets a day. Since packaging takes the longest, you might want to bump that to 25 widgets a day and make sure you have some extra time left over.
Person A didn’t even mention a problem, but you/I/this lead here has already jumped into answer mode. How on earth would they ever survive without you?
While it’s softened with words like “could” and “might,” it’s easy to hear “should.”
When they’re rare, these conversations aren’t so bad. If they happen frequently though, you’re ultimately creating a sort of atmosphere where talented individuals might start to look to you for the answer when they’re most certainly capable of figuring it out on their own. Goldsmith expounds:
While the quality of the idea may go up 5 percent, her commitment to execute it may go down 50 percent. That’s because it’s no longer her idea, it’s now your idea.
Fixing the Issue of Adding Too Much Value
There’s obviously a balance here. I want to empower people on my team to take on challenges, find solutions, and do the great work they’re more than capable of. Like I mentioned previously, this type of behavior is typically not malicious. Every great lead wants to create an army of self-sufficient high performers and future leaders.
At the same time, in some cases, teammates might want an opinion, and I don’t want to leave them hanging. I don’t want the conversation to evolve into:
“What do you think we should do?”
“I’m not sure. What do YOU think we should do?
“No, no honestly-what do think we should do?”
That’s certainly not productive.
The first step to fixing the problem is realizing when you’re over-providing answers in the first place. Listen to what you’re saying during team meetings and 1-1’s. If all of the action items and next steps sound eerily familiar, you’re doing it wrong. Your team has amazing contributions to make. Let them contribute!
The second step is clarifying the end goal in detail. If team members are at an informational disadvantage, it’s not a fair discussion. How can they have meaningful contributions when they’re playing with only a few cards and while you have a full deck?
Get all details on the table. What is the end goal? What are the available pieces to the puzzle? What is up for debate? What are our limitations?
Finally, you listen more and ask better questions. When you feel yourself springing into answer mode, replace what you’re going to say with “What do you think is the best approach?” and then close your mouth. When you’re dying to blurt out an answer, phrase it in the form of a question instead and not an answer thinly veiled as a question. For example:
Have you thought about dedicating an hour at the start of your workday to working on this project?
That’s often less a question and more a suggestion. Instead, you could say:
Have you tried arranging your schedule differently?
The latter opens up the conversation while the former closes off discussion and offers a solution.
As with all pieces to leadership, this is a skill that requires work. It’s not discussed as frequently as skills like providing feedback, but it’s important all the same!
P.S. In an effort to dogfood our product a bit more, I wrote this from the WordPress app for iOS on my iPad without an external keyboard. Let me know if anything is broken m’kay? Thanks friend!