Get Your Employees Thinking! Good managers don't solve all their employees' problems.

By Alex Hiam

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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

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

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

If you want your people to improve consistently, you need to useproblems to encourage learning. And learning requiresthinking. But as this manager demonstrates, it is easy tofind you've let people get away with thoughtlessness.

You don't get people more engaged with their work byrescuing them. Or by telling them what to do. Or even by bribingthem with rewards for doing better. All those approaches reinforcemindlessness. Instead, you need to use errors and problems asopportunities to get employees thinking. For example, whensomething goes wrong you can:

Ask why it happened. Probe foranswers 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 ownmethods.

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

Ask employees to come up with their ownrescue plan instead of taking over for them. Again, askfor multiple ideas-then guide them to selection of the best one. Inthe case of the missing credit card, the employees could have useda courier service or one of them could have made the drive.(Hint: The best idea is definitely not the one in which the leaderrushes in to fix everything while employees act helpless andincompetent.)

All these approaches ask employees what to do rather than tellthem. Traditionally, we business owners and managers have done mostof 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'sa chance to get them thinking. And don't pass up theseopportunities. Each time you tell your people what you think, youare telling them what to think. And that means you may beexcusing them from thinking at all.

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

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