Whether your team fails to deliver on its sales targets, your latest high-visibility product launch is riddled with glitches, or your marquee product faces a recall, you as a leader have a responsibility to respond to problems as they arise.
One common instinct is to put your regular responsibilities on the back burner, roll up your sleeves, and immerse yourself in operational details. You may begin to question your team members and double-check their work as if it were your own.
This natural impulse to take control and try to fix what’s broken may seem like sound leadership. But it can lead to more problems than it fixes, says Colonel Fred Maddox, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College and Chief of Staff of the Army senior fellow at the Kellogg School.
“When leaders act like they’re the only ones who can solve something, it can become an issue for the whole organization,” Maddox says, “because they’re not focused on strategy and they’re doing someone else’s job.”
Leaders who interfere also signal to their teams that their input is not desired—and may not be considered—which erodes motivation. Instead of taking over, leaders should show restraint and consider how their actions and decisions impact the broader company.
Maddox explains how to refrain from trying to solve your team’s problems alone—and free your team to grow into their own roles.
Let Go of Being a Hero
The responsibility of senior leaders in any organization is to focus on the bigger picture and not be mired in tactical processes. In a crisis, though, many leaders—and especially leaders who have risen through the ranks—can feel the urge to step into the breach. It’s here where leaders may think they are solving a problem.
“As soon as you take over any part of execution, you’ve stepped out of your strategic role,” Maddox says. “Your skills, time, and attention are focused on tasks which are other people’s jobs, so you’re misallocating resources.”
If your sales team loses two major clients in a week, your gut may tell you to get on the horn and try to lure them back. But appointing a senior staff member who understands your sales team’s priorities, and who has the skills to manage and communicate upwards, will free up your attention to focus on how the loss of clients impacts other parts of the business.
Even worse, if you insist on doing everything yourself, you are taking away opportunities for your team to prove that they are capable of doing the job.
“When you’re in a position of authority, it’s your responsibility to extend trust to the individuals on your team,” Maddox says.
Acting like you are the sole person who can fix a problem disregards their knowledge and expertise. Maddox warns that it won’t be long before your team’s culture deteriorates if you step in too often to “fix” problems.
Trust Your Team
Instead, if you constantly feel the impulse to intervene in a crisis, it is helpful to put on the brakes and reflect on why you might be overreaching.
“In the back of your head, you’re either afraid your team is going to fail, you think that someone’s not capable of handling the responsibility you gave them, or you haven’t created accountability,” Maddox says.
Consider what you can do differently to prepare your team (and yourself) for these moments so that you can feel confident in your team’s ability to execute.
Maddox points to the military’s practice of ongoing training and simulations as a model to prepare teams for the unexpected. Though most companies would not have the resources to replicate this kind of preparation, leaders can accomplish the same goal by creating safe opportunities for teams to learn and share hard lessons. He encourages leaders to establish frequent opportunities for team members to practice new skills, supported by candid feedback.
Every position has its responsibilities and boundaries, but leaders should always be attuned to ways their team members can weigh in and find innovative solutions. This can mean relinquishing authority to provide team members autonomy to make decisions and learn.
For example, when introducing a new skill to a team member, leaders shouldn’t rush to give instructions, but first ask how the individual would approach it, to encourage problem-solving. The goal, Maddox says, is to train team members to “walk in autonomy.”
He also advises that teams adopt a post-exercise “action review” in which participants discuss what worked and went wrong at every step of an operation. Each team member contributes so that successes and shortcomings are evaluated from multiple perspectives.
When learning and feedback are integrated into team culture, employees are primed to take more ownership when difficult issues surface. As a result, you will no longer feel the onus to fix something which could be better addressed as a team.
“They have the opportunity to build their confidence and skill sets in tasks that will allow them to eventually take some of the weight and burden off of you.”
Avoid Confirmation Bias
Effective leadership awareness is about more than resisting the urge to do everything yourself in a crisis. It also means thinking critically by acknowledging the limits of your ability to gain first-hand knowledge about the crisis in the first place.
“In situations with a high degree of complexity, you are going to be reliant on others to gather more information to make the best decision possible,” he says.
To do this, you need “multiple sensors” or viewpoints from your team members to get the full picture. “Have you considered all the variables at play?” Maddox says. “Because there’s usually more to the situation than is presenting itself in hand. Relying on others gives you the opportunity to see components that may change your decision.”
Maddox points out that leaders often are surrounded by talented staff—and may even trust those staff to react capably in a crisis—but still fail to listen to them when the information does not confirm their prior views. “We’re more attuned to listening to input that supports our decision,” he explains. “But when a person dissents, it’s harder for us to hear it and take the necessary steps to consider it, contemplate, and move forward.”
Maddox had to confront his own confirmation bias when developing a reporting tool for his senior leaders on a division-wide initiative. He saw what he thought was a great opportunity to build a data dashboard for his colonels and generals.
“I’m thinking this is the best thing since sliced bread,” Maddox says.
Maddox begins distributing the dashboard. His team populates it with new data every Friday. He thinks he is seeing the benefits. “In my head, this is working,” he says.
Several weeks after the launch, he finally solicits feedback from two of the dashboard’s recipients. The first commander Maddox reached didn’t know what the dashboard was. The second commander he contacted told him it wasn’t his cup of tea, so he didn’t look at it either.
“I was so convinced it was a great tool that was so necessary,” Maddox says. “But weeks later, I learned we had created something that no one was using. That was painful, because we lost a lot of sleep putting it together.”
To prevent confirmation bias from seeping into decisions, Maddox encourages leaders to “walk through” scenarios with team members from all angles, paying extra attention to viewpoints that contradict or challenge their own. It’s quite possible that, had Maddox listened to more voices before designing the dashboard, he would have discovered that senior leaders already had effective ways of learning this information.
“There are very few situations where the person at the top of the chain can see everything completely,” Maddox says.