Stop Stealing Learning Moments

Jan 14, 2020 by Kate MacAleavey

In my line of work, I have people approach me daily with personnel issues. Personnel issues aren’t shocking as we are all complex humans with different thoughts, feelings, and contexts. But what is surprising to me is that 95% of the time when people bring these complaints to me and, I ask, “Have you talked to this person about how you are feeling?” The answer is no.

If you are a manager at any level, how much time do you spend on personnel issues? What if I tolhd you that you could cut down on that by 45% or more?

One of my first initiatives when I got to Armory was to urge our leaders to stop fixing their direct reports problems. “But isn’t that my job?” They ask. Sure, if your job is to undermine your directs learning and growth. The statement above may sound harsh, but I want leaders and managers to stop for a moment and think about how their actions are contributing to the behaviors they don’t want. Many of us never learned what good management is; if we were lucky, we attended a course or two, and if we won the lottery, we had an exceptional manager to learn from. And even then, the idea of “good management” is still in question.

This is how a typical personnel issue plays out in many organizations: a direct report (let’s call him Chris) would go to his manager or leader (Jenny) to complain about another direct report, Sam. Jenny being the great and caring manager that she is, would collect this feedback from Chris and go and speak with Sam. Sam receives feedback; Jenny did her job, Chris feels better, issue resolved. Sound familiar?

I have seen this triangulation happen in more organizations than I can count, but has anyone stopped to think about the impact of Jenny stepping in? Here is the undercurrent of this “resolved” situation.

  1. Sam no longer trusts Chris because he didn’t come directly to him
  2. Chris has no ownership or accountability over his feelings because someone spoke for him
  3. Jenny has become the bottleneck in the situation: moving forward Chris knows Jenny will do his dirty work, and Chris doesn’t have the experience to have these conversations
  4. Chris and Sam both miss out on a critical growth opportunity: relationships become stronger through hard and honest dialogue

If the above is what’s happening when managers step in, why do we still do it?

  • You have a hard time holding other people accountable
  • It feels great to use your strengths and save the day
  • You have been rewarded for this behavior before
  • Someone told you this is what good management looks like
  • You want to help when you were asked
  • If you aren’t fixing your directs problems… what worth do you have as a manager?
  • Your direct is uncomfortable with having these conversations

Managers and leaders around the world are acting with good intent. But when you take a closer look, I would argue you are doing far more harm than good. So what should you do if you are Jenny in this situation? Glad you asked. Sit down and listen to how Chris is feeling. Ask him open-ended coaching questions to help Chris get to the crux of his discomfort. The goal of this conversation should be to get to clarity and ownership over his feelings. Finally, ask Chris if he as talked to Sam. If he says, “No.” Ask what is stopping him. If he doesn’t feel comfortable, then offer to practice the conversation with him first. But under no circumstances should you offer to speak for him. I personally only step in when my employee has tried to have at least two conversations with the other party. And when I step in, I don’t speak for anyone; I moderate a discussion to make sure everyone feels heard.

Of all the actions you take in a day, this moment might seem like an inconsequential one, but I assure you, it is not. When you support and empower your employees to have these hard conversations, you give them the opportunity to grow and stretch. Why would you want to take that away from them? And guess what happens when you, as the manager or leader, are no longer resolving employee issues every second of the day? That’s right; you get your time back to focus on more significant initiatives that move the company forward.

Here at Armory, I have seen first hand what this type of empowerment has done. Our leaders feel free and focused, and our employees feel competent and supported. Are these conversations uncomfortable and hard? Yes. Do they go perfectly all of the time? No. But what growth comes without trial and error? We choose growth over comfort every day at Armory.

While I am writing about personnel issues, this logic applies to all of your directs work. I have been teaching our leaders how to coach instead of solve. Because when you solve these problems, what are you teaching them?

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