This lesson may be a hard one to learn.
Q: One of the line supervisors on my team regularly comes to me with problems: about his clients, about his direct reports, about the rest of the organization. I’ve been in this business for 20 years, so it’s usually pretty obvious to me what he should do. But when I give him advice, he either tells me it won’t work or agrees in the moment but then does something else completely. Is he incompetent? A passive whiner? Just plain stupid? I’m so frustrated. What can I do to get through to him?
A: It’s frustrating to feel that you could do someone’s job better than they can. I’ve regularly watched people bumble through something, seeing the impending trainwreck long before they do, and thought, “Oh, friend. Let me tell you what you need to do…
But, like you, I found that even when I shared my hard-earned brilliance, most people ignored my counsel and did their own thing. When I was younger, I blamed it on them — obviously, they were too dim or blinded to recognize my wisdom. But over time, I realized something important: People ignored my advice because it wasn’t right for them.
This was a hard one to learn. Because I’d successfully navigated similar situations, I was confident that my recipe for success was the right one. I had to learn that the other person isn’t me — they are coming to this situation with a different set of skills, experiences, and perspectives. And this situation isn’t the same either — the players, the context, and the issues are different.
So my first suggestion to you is to recognize that what worked for you in 2006 with that one client may not be the right answer for your teammate in 2022 with a similar-but-really-not-the-same situation. And that your recipe — regardless of how well it worked for you — very likely won’t work for them, because they aren’t you.
That doesn’t mean you just sit back, arms crossed, and watch silently as they flame out; that’s not just terrible management but also cruel. Instead, try shifting your goal: Rather than fixing his problem for him, help him find his own way to solve the problems.
This requires shifting your management style from directive to coaching. Directive managers are the ones we usually see in movies: They tell their people exactly how to do things, operating through authority and personal expertise. Hero-style, they fix all the problems. While this management model may have worked in the old days when tasks were concrete and workers basically interchangeable parts, directive management rarely works in modern workplaces where we need people to operate autonomously in ever-changing environments.
Manager-coaches also set goals and outcome expectations, but they allow their people to decide how to achieve them. They offer support and resources (and some advice when asked), but their focus is on helping others learn to solve their own problems.
There are many models for this type of coaching-for-problem-solving conversation. One of my favorites (because it’s so simple) is the GROW model. When someone comes to you with a problem, instead of leading with your (possibly irrelevant) ideas, you ask them four questions:
I was skeptical when I first tried it; I thought that if they don’t know how to solve a problem, how will asking more questions help? Don’t they need my advice? But they don’t. It is incredible to watch someone move from stuck to empowered in these conversations, because you are helping them clarify their thinking, speak their concerns and ideas out loud, and basically get mentally organized.
Of course, the first time you try this with one of your supervisors who is frustrating you, he may look at you blankly. It will take some work to break the pattern you have of complaint-advice-inaction. You might start by being explicit about the change. Tell him you realize that your advice-giving hasn’t been helpful for him. Express your trust that he is the expert in how to meet his goals, and that you are here to support him. Explain that you want to try a new tool for helping him solve problems. And then try out coaching conversations.
Worst case, over time and with support, he still can’t solve his own problems and you’ll know for sure that he’s not right for the job. Best case, you have an empowered, engaged supervisor who no longer frustrates you on such a regular basis.