Hi, my name is Mike, and I am recovering fixer. I’ve spent a great deal of my life taking ownership for and fixing other people’s problems. I used to think this was a good thing, as I was able to make life more comfortable for others. However, there is a price to pay for being a fixer.
Letting the teamwork through a problem
I was once coaching a team in the use of Agile methods. One of the issues the team identified in using Agile was the amount of time it would take to do a code review.
The code review process was mandated and would make it impossible to deliver code every two weeks. This situation created a lot of anxiety for the team as they felt trapped between a rock and a hard place.
I resisted the urge to fix anything or excuse the team’s feeling of being trapped. I could have quickly fallen into old habits and fixed something.
I remember thinking this was an opportunity for the team’s growth. So, I challenged them to work on the problem and find ways to get the time under half a day. There were objections from the team, as they didn’t see a way around the requirement to follow the process.
After several iterations and days, I had a developer in my office excitedly telling me they got the code review time under an hour. I congratulated him and said how impressed I was. I asked how they did it.
He explained all along they were sending emails. The thought of going four rows over and talking to the reviewers was uncomfortable. They were dealing with the anxiety of confronting another group by hiding behind emails.
Through the face to face conversation the team was soon asked, “Rather than sending us the results of weeks of work to review all at once, could you send us your work to review every half day?” The solution was simple and was what we already knew: reduce the batch size.
I later found out the original feeling of being trapped was due to the anxiety associated with challenging any process at this company. In this past, this group had reprimanded and told if they didn’t follow the process it could result in a black mark in their performance review.
If I had gone off to fix the problem for the team, it’s possible they would have continued sending emails and dumping the team’s problems on me. Worse yet, they would not have been able to move through the discomfort of feeling trapped. I would have the lost the opportunity to help this team strengthen this muscle.
A leader’s job is to create the conditions so the team can succeed. Creating successful conditions means you need to build the ability for your team(s) to work through problems despite the discomfort they may be feeling. You will fail to create an environment of success if you run around fixing all their problems.
The cost to me for fixing
I spent a great deal of my life living with the belief it I a good person when I fix other people’s problems. Fixing takes many forms, and in the moment might even feel like the right thing to do. After all, by fixing things I relieve the discomfort we’re feeling. At least that was my story.
Fixing the discomfort rarely fixes the problem, it will be on me when it comes back. When it does come back, the team will continue to look to me to relieve their discomfort. The problem will not go away.
In the above example, had I jumped into action I am confident I could have reached an agreement to reduce the code review time. I imagine myself going to management and asking for an exemption. This likely would have created other downstream problems. In letting the team work through the problem, I am allowing those who know the work best find a solution.
Worse yet, had I fixed a problem I deny the team the opportunity to build their ability to move through the discomfort associated with change. When this happens, teams develop a dependency on the leader.
Had I fixed the problem in the above story, the team would not have started to defuse their anxiety around challenging the process. Without the experience, the discomfort associated with taking ownership of process issues would have remained steadfast.
There are many forms fixing takes for me:
- Doing a lot of fast talking to convince the other person it’s not a big problem. This talking amounts to trying to get the other person into a mindset of denial, so they’re not even acknowledging a problem
- Supporting and reinforcing the stories they are telling themselves. I would say things confirming they’re right and there is little hope of it being different. But that’s not their fault
- Convincing the other person to go into a mindset such as denial, laying blame, or justification. In these mindsets, you either don’t acknowledge the problem, or you see the problem as someone else’s
- Running off to fix the problem myself, even though the problem has little to do with me personally
- Taking the bullet for the team, as I thought it was my job to protect them. Taking a bullet can deny teams the opportunity to understand and fix the problems they’re facing.
- Creating a process to cover up a problem the team was encountering (this amounts to a C.Y.A. move)
Leaders normalize the discomfort
As a leader, your job is to create the conditions for your team(s) to succeed and improve. Creating successful environments means letting people learn to work through and fix their problems despite the discomfort.
The natural response to discomfort is to take an action that will return us to a comfortable place. Such action is increasing comfort for the sake of comfort. Increasing comfort for the sake of comfort will not end with an improved situation.
If you want to avoid the trap of fixing the discomfort, start by acknowledging how you’re feeling about the problem. Through this small amount of vulnerability, you can normalize the discomfort and take away its power over the team.
To do this, you could say something like “I know we’re working through some difficult problems lately. Frankly, I find this hard as the problems have me worried about our ability to deliver. How do you feel about things?” In doing this, you will make it OK to be uncomfortable.
Give the team time to voice how they’re feeling. Then, ask the team “What does support from me look like?”
Your ability to face an uncomfortable situation is like a muscle. At first, the muscle might be weak, but with some work, it will strengthen. With practice, you will find you can step into the middle of discomfort and do some courageous things.
Leaders make it OK to be uncomfortable. Discomfort is, after all, the birthplace of improvement.
Asking for help
I want to acknowledge that sometimes the team needs your help to resolve a problem. However, this isn’t the same as fixing the discomfort.
More on asking for help in an upcoming post.