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Get Your Employees Thinking!

Good managers don't solve all their employees' problems.

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My wife lost a credit card at a store the other day. When she realized what had happened, she called the store, and they tracked down the card and promised to send it right away. A week later, it was still AWOL, and she talked to the store manager. Rather firmly. Two days later, still missing. Now she was good and upset and would have gone in herself if the store wasn't a couple hours away. But then the store manager jumped in her car and-in spite of being ill with a fever-delivered the card in person along with apologies and a gift basket.

Is this good leadership? At first it seems like it might be. The manager leapt into action to rescue a customer relationship and set a great example for her employees to follow. What better way to lead than by example? But if you look a little closer...

Let's take a look at the sequence of events: First, the employee at the register forgot to hand the card back. Second, another employee forgot to mail the card. Third, when the card was finally mailed, the address was butchered, so the envelope made a slow circular loop back to the store. By the time these mindless errors had taken their toll, the manager had a real emergency on her hands. So what did she do? She rushed to rescue her employees from their own incompetence. Now what lesson exactly does this teach the employees?

If you want your people to improve consistently, you need to use problems to encourage learning. And learning requires thinking. But as this manager demonstrates, it is easy to find you've let people get away with thoughtlessness.

You don't get people more engaged with their work by rescuing them. Or by telling them what to do. Or even by bribing them with rewards for doing better. All those approaches reinforce mindlessness. Instead, you need to use errors and problems as opportunities to get employees thinking. For example, when something goes wrong you can:

Ask why it happened. Probe for answers having to do with how the work was done, not who done it. The blame game won't help prevent similar errors next time. You've got to get employees to evaluate and improve their own methods.

Ask for multiple ways to fix the problem, since employees too often do the first thing they think of and fail to consider other options. For instance, would an employee have come up with the idea of giving a gift basket?

Ask employees to come up with their own rescue plan instead of taking over for them. Again, ask for multiple ideas-then guide them to selection of the best one. In the case of the missing credit card, the employees could have used a courier service or one of them could have made the drive. (Hint: The best idea is definitely not the one in which the leader rushes in to fix everything while employees act helpless and incompetent.)

All these approaches ask employees what to do rather than tell them. Traditionally, we business owners and managers have done most of the talking, but that means we are doing most of the thinking, too.

So if your employees don't seem to be thinking very hard, look at the bright side. Every time something goes wrong, it's a chance to get them thinking. And don't pass up these opportunities. Each time you tell your people what you think, you are telling them what to think. And that means you may be excusing them from thinking at all.

Alex Hiam is the founder and director of Alexander Hiam & Associates, a management consulting firm, and a publisher of tools for corporate trainers. He is the author of Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEO, Marketing for Dummies and other popular books, and he has worked with a variety of high-tech start-ups and family-owned businesses.