What’s one of the highest compliments many women leaders seek? That we know how to problem-solve. It’s an admirable trait, bringing to mind the ability to compromise, make hard decisions and win others to our way of thinking.
But not every “problem” is solvable—especially when it comes to the everyday task of leading people.
We sometimes see situations with employees as problems to solve, too. Taking a fix-it approach, however well-meaning, could be detrimental not only to our own success as leaders, but also to the growth of those we lead.
Being able to recognize when realistic guidance morphs into unrealistic repairs can help women in charge break the fix-it habit.
Habits of ‘Whoa-Mission’
Why do some good female managers fall into a fix-it trap? When they try to lead by “whoa-mission,” (as in how riders of horses make it slow or stop), says leadership consultant Julie Winkle Giulioni, co-author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want.”
“Well-meaning leaders ultimately thwart staff development and sub-optimize their teams in the process,” Giulioni says. “This happens not because they’re doing too little, but because they’re doing too much. [Like] helicopter parents who get in the way of their children learning and becoming independent, managers who err by whoa-mission cultivate in their employees’ low self-efficacy, lack of initiative, compromised capacity and a debilitating sense of dependence.”
True leadership leads. It can’t and shouldn’t finish the job for everyone. When that happens, your employees lose because they don’t learn, and you lose as well because you don’t teach.
In becoming the type of leader we really want to be, we need to break a few habits, says leadership coach Marlene Chism. She cites “that urge to fix others” as one of those habits—and admits it can be tough to change.
The difference between leading and merely “fixing” lies in when your “fixes” are just that—temporary band-aids that don’t foster learning, Chism says. “For example, when you make an excuse for an employee’s poor performance. Say to yourself, “This belongs to them [to fix], not to me.”
Quit The Fix: A Four-Step Solution
So how can we recognize if we’ve got an overwhelming urge to fix others? Ask yourself these hard questions:
Are you too much of a people-pleaser? In our efforts to get employees to think well of us, we can be easy-going to a fault. Remind yourself that if someone’s done something wrong, or is having trouble with duties, it’s up to that person to fix their own behavior. You can offer help (e.g., more training) but while eliminating the problem yourself will “please” your employee, it won’t make him or her any better at the job.
Do you have a pattern of over-extending yourself? We all fall into the trap of thinking, “If I want it done right, I’ll just do it myself!” from time to time. But if this becomes our default approach, it’s time to realize we could be doing too much fixing for others at our own expense. The result: We end up resentful, which only makes the situation worse.
Do you have a reputation for allowing poor performance? If so, this might be because you’d rather fix sub-par work yourself, so you can avoid difficult conversations (for instance, if an employee is performing so badly he should be terminated). Tending to a few small fixes can be understood, but if those problems become constant, it’s time to accept that fixing the situation likely won’t help.
Do you feel too sorry when you correct others? Our employees want and need our expertise and guidance, not our pity. When we downplay what needs to be fixed by employees, we miss out on the opportunity our criticism gives employees to make necessary fixes themselves.
The first step is acknowledging that sometimes, our need to fix people gets in the way of true leadership. Recognizing common pitfalls can help us overcome the urge to fix, which helps those we lead do the fixing themselves.