As a CPA, I spent many years being a problem solver. As an auditor, my trained tendency was to audit things…to correct and fix them. This habit helped me excel in the technical aspects of my job. But to my husband…well, I’m not sure he found me irresistible when I was correcting his statements or trying to solve all his problems!
Often, I felt that I wasn’t valuable or worthy if I didn’t have the answers. It’s what people expected of me. It’s what I thought I was paid to do. Having the answers was usually a plus when it came to my level of client service and my technical expertise as a CPA. However, when it came to leading my teams, I could have served them better by not always having all the answers.
The healthcare industry has actually given this phenomenon a name – the “righting reflex” (Rollnick, Miller, & Butler, 2008). The righting reflex is an automatic desire to want to help another by providing a solution or correction. We experience the righting reflex when we feel compelled to offer advice or tips to someone. It happens when we attempt to fix what we see as wrong for another person, based upon what we think is right.
Offering solutions works very well in a business relationship where your job is to provide the answers. However, in leadership, solving other people’s problems can hinder the growth and development of your team. Plus, it can feel exhausting when you are always the one solving other people’s problems.
Here are four reasons why the righting reflex often hurts more than it helps when it comes to leading others:
- We have a natural tendency to resist being told what to do.
Have you ever noticed this tendency in yourself? Maybe you’ve noticed it in your interactions with others, like your colleagues, spouse, children or friends?
When I was pregnant, sometimes I felt like people saw my burgeoning belly as a sign that said, “Please give me parenting advice!” I’m certain these other parents were only trying to help. But when someone told me what I should or shouldn’t do without my having asked, my initial reaction was to resist their advice…even if I ultimately implemented it later on.
When we tell someone else what to do, they may (consciously or unconsciously) rebel against what they perceive as someone else exerting authority over them. This can make them feel wrong. It can put them on the defensive. How receptive do you think someone would be to your advice when they feel this way?
- The solution may not fit the person or problem.
Each of us is a unique person living a unique life. Our individual perspective is shaped by our personality, upbringing, values, culture, beliefs, and life experiences. When you provide a solution to someone else, it is automatically biased because it comes from your perspective.
Even when we try to step into another person’s shoes, it’s impossible for us to fully appreciate another’s perspective because we are not that person. Although someone may extract useful information from your perspective, only they can decide whether and how it fits them and their particular situation.
- It’s too easy.
Sometimes simply giving a team member the answer makes good sense. Perhaps there is a simple, clear-cut answer, and time is limited. Maybe the question is advanced, and it wouldn’t be a wise use of resources for the person asking to figure it out for themselves.
However, in many situations, it’s just taking (and giving) the easy way out. It may be quicker to give someone the answer. But we rob others (and ourselves!) of a great learning opportunity when we do so. When a team member searches for and finds an answer in their own way, using their own resources, the learning is more impactful. It “sticks” better.
- It discourages ownership.
If a team member relies on you to tell them what to do, they may believe they have shifted responsibility to you. If the solution doesn’t work, they will see it as your solution that failed. If they implement their own solution, they will be more likely to own the outcome.
So what can you do instead of solving a team member’s problem? Here are three ideas:
- Ask questions.
By asking your team members questions instead of providing them with answers, you challenge them to figure it out for themselves. You encourage them to think differently. They will take different actions. They may even find new answers.
“Good questions outrank easy answers.” – Paul Samuelson
- Provide a safe space to learn and fail.
Provide team members with the freedom to figure it out for themselves. Allow them a safe space to fail. You can do this by providing them with:
- Assignments they can safely experiment with.
- The time necessary to brainstorm different ideas and explore potential solutions.
- Encouragement and support throughout the process, even when something doesn’t work out.
It’s empowering when we find our own answers! It bolsters our confidence. It gives us courage to try new things.
- Serve as a guide.
When you guide another’s learning process, you are not directing it. Nor are you abandoning the person to “sink or swim.” You are there to support and challenge them.
Provide encouragement as they work through the problem. Instead of swooping in to save the day when they get stuck, redirect them. You could ask, “What did you learn, and how could you apply that next time?”
Guide the process of learning, not just the content. Knowing how to learn new things is a skill that never becomes obsolete.
Leaders who overcome their righting reflex are in a better position to empower their team. When a leader guides the team to find their own solutions, the team learns more. They take ownership of their problems. They will be more resourceful when new problems arise. The team is more committed, confident, capable and resilient.
Think different: How can you positively impact your team by overcoming your righting reflex?
Act different: What is one thing you will do differently the next time someone on your team asks you to solve their problem?
About the Author
Sarah Elliott, CPA, ACC believes the future of the accounting profession depends on our capacity to love. As the co-founder and principal of Intend2Lead, a leadership development firm, she coaches CPAs to access the possibility dimension: the place where fear is no longer the enemy.