My local burger restaurant recently installed a state-of-the art Coke machine. A big screen displays about ten different options for ice, Coke, its various forms, lemonade, and Sprite. Customers can even opt to mix the different drinks in whatever formula they like.
Leaders should offer several options for people to get what they want from them, too, but most don’t. As busy people, they juggle multiple priorities and make high-stakes decisions every day, and developing options for responding to problems seems to take too long. When they hear a problem, they immediately jump in and fix things. But is that the best decision?
Although my successful clients are exceptional problem-solvers, as they advance in the organization, they need to become more like sophisticated soft drink dispensers than advice distributors. That means, they need to be aware of the various choices they can give their direct reports.
For instance, sometimes direct reports simply want to notify the boss of a problem; at another time, they want help; and at other times, they may just need some sympathy. Occasionally, not always, direct reports want the boss to fix things, but I advise against doing this very often. It breeds dependency and allows the person to offload responsibility for decisions.
When leaders hear a problem they usually default to the question-asking option: “Did you call the guy? Did you fill out the form? Did you notify HR?” Although they don’t intend to, they send the message “I don’t think you know how to fix this yourself.” The fastest and easiest way to approach things differently is to ask, “What do you think you should do about this?”
The recipe for Coca Cola continues to be a tightly-held secret-the formula for success more transparent. Give people what they need and give them options for getting it.