How To Sharpen Your Manager’s Problem Solving Skills

The ability to problem solve is one of the top two characteristics employers look for in a job candidate. Every business owner wants to hire an employee who thinks creatively and negotiates challenges in their role.

But as a business owner, how do you strengthen problem-solving skills in your current employees, and in particular, your managers?

By empowering leaders to exercise independent thinking at work, you give them the confidence to solve problems on the job. Here are some simple ideas that strengthen your managers’ problem-solving skill set and leadership traits one step at a time:

Encourage Constant Innovation

Although businesses need to follow processes, if the protocol is too strict, it can inhibit problem-solving. As Gregory Ciotti points out on an article about creativity, comments like “we do it this way” discourage people from taking on problems. He cites research from Harvard University, which suggests that subtle or more formal external restrictions can limit creative thinking.

A workplace that’s limited by the “old way of doing things” diminishes managerial ownership and the potential for positive change. If your managers have an awesome idea, they won’t share their thoughts in a hostile environment. Encourage the presence of multiple viewpoints and perspectives to foster strong problem-solving skills.

Let your employees know that their opinions and ideas are always welcome. Set up weekly one-on-one meetings when managers can suggest changes and pitch potential solutions to repetitive issues. Another approach is to actively ask your managers with bringing one problem to your attention they could improve or streamline, along with a plan to make the change happen.

Give Managers Opportunities to Problem Solve

Business owners dedicate their professional lives to growing their companies. Sometimes the hardest part is stepping away. To develop problem solving skills, business owners need to walk a fine line between mentoring managers and giving them the freedom to work things out on their own. When a manager is on shift, give them authority to make decisions and solve problems. Ask your leaders to consider three questions before they reach out to you about a difficult situation:

  1. Do you need the business owner here to reflect the seriousness of a situation? (i.e. an egregious customer service issue with a long-term, loyal client; an emergency.)
    Only reach out if a trusted business relationship or employee is at risk or there’s a true emergency.
  2. Is this problem indicative of long-term challenge?
    If it’s a long-term problem that’s not time sensitive, managers can bring it up in a daily or weekly meeting.
  1. Is this a situation I can solve with my current resources? If so, what are the steps?
    If the answer is a clear “yes,” managers can tackle the issue at hand.
  1. Have I tried to solve this challenge on my own at least two or three different ways?
    For smaller, non-emergency issues, managers benefit from trying to solve problems on their own before reaching out to the business owner.

These kinds of questions give structure to the manager-business owner relationship, ensuring that new managers can test their own boundaries and continue to grow while relying on business owners for true emergencies.

Encourage and Reward Progress

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes a growth mindset as the recognition that failure is not a reflection of a person’s worth but a vital aspect of long-term successes. A fixed mindset interprets talent as static and unchangeable; failure is a reflection of incompetence. Although this seems like a basic distinction, it makes all the difference when it comes to problem solving. Without an understanding of failure as positive, managers are fearful about stepping out of the status quo and tackling an issue.

Mentor managers toward growth mindset by rewarding progress. Rather than favouring managers with innate skill and using terms like “gifted” or “natural,” foster each person’s development. Correlate bonuses and recognition with improvement rather than straight performance.

A slight tweak of language can make a change too. For example, Fast Company suggests that leaders add the word “yet” to the end of their sentences. “I haven’t solved this problem yet” offers the promise of growth compared to “I haven’t solved this problem.” This small change supports a growth mindset and nurtures problem solving skills.

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Change the Structure of Meetings

When was the last time you brought all your managers together to solve a problem? In the business community, there’s a prevalent myth that problem solving works best in groups. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. Most managers come up with their best ideas on their own.

As Art Markman summarised in Harvard Business Review, “When groups simply get together and start throwing out ideas, they actually come up with fewer ideas overall and fewer novel, actionable ideas than the individuals in that group would have come up with had they worked alone.”

Instead, implement these three problem-solving steps:

  1. Give your managers time to brainstorm about a problem on their own. Solutions often come unexpectedly. Foster these organic breakthroughs by creating the space for reflection and solo time at work.
  1. Collect problem-solving ideas from managers and share them over email with the group. Instead of bringing everyone together to discuss ideas immediately, allow each employee the time to build on each other’s ideas individually.
  1. Share these set of ideas with the group, and get together to discuss the topic at hand. Keep the meeting small — only essential personnel — and ask someone to facilitate the conversation.  

By creating an environment where people can try, reflect, and sometimes even fail, you can sharpen your managers’ problem skills and master on your own. Without a doubt, these improvements will trickle down to other staff members, as they mirror your managers’ willingness to take on challenges with an open mind and a clear process.

How To Sharpen Your Manager’s Problem Solving Skills