Vail Daily column: The answer man
May 4, 2014
Years ago, I worked with a very talented senior executive who happened to be one of the brightest people I've ever known. He could outthink and outsmart just about everyone he worked with and he knew it. If you had an idea, then he could make it better. If you had a solution, then he would come up with something that hadn't crossed your mind. If you were seeing a problem beginning to show itself, then he'd already have three options to solve it. And, you know what? Ninety-nine percent of the time, he was right!
Tom (not his real name) was extremely successful as were those around him. It appeared that all his team had to do was follow his lead, implement his solutions and success naturally followed. Who wouldn't want to be on a team with the confidence of knowing that what you were working on was the right stuff and going to produce effective results? With a smart leader at the helm, why would the team need to waste time coming up with different solutions or ideas when Tom seemed to have all the answers?
“By giving people all of the answers, we take away the opportunity for them to make a mistake and learn from it. We also deny them the chance to come up with a great idea.”
However, there was an unintended consequence for the consistent success realized under Tom's guidance. Eventually, the more success he and his team had, the more the group depended on Tom for the solutions. In fact, it got to the point where the team stopped even looking for potential issues or challenges. They merely stopped paying attention and waited for Tom to tell them what was next.
Can you guess what happened to Tom? He started taking Xanax to manage his out-of-control stress and began having anxiety attacks in the middle of the day, seemingly for no apparent reason. You see, Tom had painted himself into a corner. His talented, successful team had stopped thinking and had become dependent on Tom for thoughts and direction.
Law of Averages
We frequently see this issue with leaders — while well-intended, leaders too often give people the answers instead of helping their people discover the solution on their own. For many of us, it feels good to have all the answers. Knowing what to do all the time strokes our ego and seems to make life easier. Parents do it all the time with their children. Yet, as we saw in Tom's situation, if you're right all the time (or so it appears) and collaboration stops, you're creating a dependence on you for ideas, answers, solutions and direction. The law of averages would predict that eventually, you'll be wrong. So, what happens then? You know it's bound to occur. The unintended outcome is your team has no ownership in the decision and it becomes solely your mistake — your poor choice — your problem.
Mistakes help us Learn
Making mistakes is part of learning. Yet, by giving people all of the answers, we take away the opportunity for them to make a mistake and learn from it. We also deny them the chance to come up with a great idea. While we may believe we are being helpful and know best, we're actually depriving them of a valuable learning experience or, conversely, the pride in getting it right. In the long run, it's a costly scenario for all parties involved.
Next time, when you see an issue, challenge or problem and your natural instinct is to give someone the answer, stop and ask yourself, "Am I helping or hurting the situation by giving them the solution?" Remember, sometimes it's better to ask a question than to give the answer.
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and the chief operating officer at Thin2Perform, a business and sports performance firm that improves bottom-line results for executives, athletes and organizations. He resides in Edwards with his wife Lori and their three children. Think2Perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber & Business Association. They offer a series of "Breakthrough for Business" workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit http://www.vailchamber.org or http://www.think2perform.com.