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Why it sometimes pays to let people solve problems for themselves 

In technical work, problems invariably come up. Your code stops working. Two parts of your system suddenly refuse to talk to each other. A seemingly inexplicable bug creeps in. 

The circumstances the team is likely operating in – with deadlines and customer goals to meet – will generally see people ask for help. This is particularly true among the less-experienced members of your team. It’s understandable, of course: they don’t want to be the one who delays the project. 

And while one of the reasons for working in teams is precisely so we can all support each other, there’s also enormous value in ensuring your people have the self-belief that they can solve problems when they arise. Not their pal, or someone on the other team, or someone at the other end of a forum. They themselves. 

This can be challenging when there’s also a certain prestige in being seen as a ‘fixer’. There will be people in your organisation who love the respect that comes from having others know they can step in and sort everything out. But sometimes, you don’t actually want them to solve the problem for their colleague (or at least, not in the first instance). 

A breakthrough in self-belief 

A personal breakthrough for me was when I moved to Australia, while continuing to work as a developer for a UK company. I could still access support from the UK team overnight, via email, or in calls at the end or start of the day. But if I wanted to get something done now, during my daytime working hours, I needed to sort it out myself.  

The first time I hit a problem, I tried a well-known technique. I went to make a cup of tea. It had nearly always worked for me in the past – coming away from my desk to think about the problem would usually yield a solution.  

But that day, it didn’t. I made my cup of tea, came back to my machine – and the problem was still there. I didn’t have any choice but to sit down and start thinking about it. 

A funny thing happened once I’d got to the end of my cup of tea. I wasn’t thinking about tea any more, or staring idly out of the window. I’d been gripped by the problem I needed to solve. I was thinking of answers and verifying solutions.  

And while it took me most of the day to solve an issue that one of my colleagues could probably have sorted in 10 minutes, I learnt the most important lesson of my career: I could do it myself

Help people to help themselves 

When you’re leading a team, keep an eye out for people who let other folks solve their problems. Remember this is likely to be a shortage of self-belief, rather than laziness. Work on plans with them so they can build up the confidence to do it themselves. Help them turn responses such as ‘not again!’ or ‘I wanted to get this software shipped tonight’ into ‘that’s interesting, I wonder why this has happened’. 

When you empower them appropriately, the best people will come to thrive on problems. To get them to this point, you first need to take away the easy route to their solution – and they’ll thank you when they’ve made it as a guru a couple of years later.  

As a leader in the organisation, you’ll also thank yourself, as you build teams of people who are ultimately more productive, and who produce better results for your customers. 

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