Here at =mc we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature, we share some of those challenges, and our advice, for dealing with them.
Hello =mc team, I’m hoping you can help me! I am an IT manager in a very exciting charity. Our organisation is ambitious, fast paced, forward looking and trying to change the world through campaigning and advocacy work. We’ve grown in the last few years, and my team has grown too.
Our work has become increasingly complex – which is also exciting. We support more than standard office-based work – we have hybrid teams, remote working, and many new systems and processes that are constantly evolving. At first I really enjoyed being a leader for a bigger and growing function. Seeing all the opportunities we have is inspiring and motivating. But just recently I’ve become more and more frustrated.
My team are clever, skilled engineers. Yet they are constantly coming to me with questions, and asking for my help. And the things they’re asking about are things they’ve previously done without help, things we’ve been over before or things I really think they know the answers to. I can’t work out what is making them do this – it feels like I’m a shortcut; maybe they are being lazy? I’m also worried about the impact this is having on my goals. I want to be focusing on more strategic areas of work, developing our approach and pushing us forward.
I don’t want to sound harsh, but this neediness is holding me back. Some days I feel really overwhelmed with taking the time to be supportive, and help my team. Of course I want to help them, but how do I get everything else done too?
Hello IT Manager. It sounds like your organisation is a great place to work, with lots of exciting projects on the horizon. I can really appreciate how this motivates you to want to do more to enable the important work that your charity is doing.
I wonder if you are being caught out a little by your desire to be helpful and supportive to your team? You have a lot of experience to share, including institutional knowledge. We see a lot of managers in the charity sector who want to take a highly supportive approach, and couple this with lots of sound advice. In theory it sounds very helpful: give each member of your team all the answers they need to do a great job. In reality, this nurturing approach takes a lot of energy from you, and may actually become a bit of a sticking point. It doesn’t encourage your team to learn and find answers for themselves.
Could you hold back on offering answers straight away, and see if there is a way to encourage your team to come up with their own solutions a bit more? Getting your team into a problem solving mindset, so that they can resolve issues on their own will in turn create more sustainability for you – freeing you up to do the important work you want to get onto. A useful starting point would be to assess their strengths, competencies and abilities to resolve the issues they bring to you. Do they have the knowledge, skill, insight and experience to solve these problems? Have they come across similar situations before? Or are these situations that no-one has dealt with before, and therefore they need the confidence to try things out or experiment? Are they aware of the level of creativity they can bring into these situations? Do they need more permission to fail from you, rather than advice on how to do it your way?
Dear IT Manager, this sounds like a tricky situation, and you certainly have a lot going on. Being a manager can be incredibly rewarding and exciting. I fully appreciate it can also be irritating and daunting at times.
I just want to pick up on something you mention in your email: about your team being lazy. This is really an assumption: laziness is a choice to do the easiest thing. And we don’t know for sure that is what is happening here. Being lazy isn’t necessarily bad either – if I was very lazy, and found efficient ways to do my work in the least stressful way, that still delivered high quality outcomes, then my need to make the least effort possible would be a great thing! I’d recommend not making these kinds of assumptions, focusing instead on the behaviour you want to see changed – not labelling people or assuming personality is the problem. It is much less frustrating to think of the situation from this angle: the team feel the need to ask questions, and to get the quickest answer possible – which currently means asking you. The behaviour you want to change here is your team continually coming to you for their answers. In keeping with the advice from Charlie above, is there another way for them to find the answers they need without coming to you for that quick win?
I wonder if a coaching approach could be useful here. Coaching is where you use questioning, listening and reflecting skills to enable people to devise their own outcomes and actions. This doesn’t have to be formal or onerous. A tool like GROW (Goals, Reality, Options & Obstacles, Will and Way Forward) gives you an easy-to-use approach to structure a coaching conversation. A quick version you could try next time your team member comes to you with a question would be something along the lines of this: What is the outcome we need here? What is happening right now? How could we get from A to B? What are all the different options here? What challenges are there with these options? Which is the best – and why? How will you know that has worked? What is your next step? As Charlie has said you’ll need to know that they’ll know the answers – or at least that you can accept their answers.
Hello Manager! I am a massive fan of coaching, and love Philly’s ideas on this. This approach is super empowering, as it gives your team the ability to diagnose and resolve the immediate problem – and at the same time learn skills in problem solving more generally. Using this approach will create more self-reliance over time. So whilst it may feel like a bit of a departure from your current approach, which could be uncomfortable, it will pay off in the long run. I’d recommend starting and keeping going! Practice will make this easier for you, and getting into the habit of asking questions first before providing advice will also normalise this approach for the team. Perhaps you could bring this up in a team meeting: a bit of group work / discussion on how we solve problems, and what questions are useful to ask and answer when we face repeating or common challenges. This sets the expectation and sows seeds for further one on one coaching conversations.
I wondered if you could also benefit from a bit of coaching? This could give you some time to explore your plans for the team, practice your technique, and have some support for the overwhelm that you are feeling. It’s a very powerful experience and it doesn’t cost a fortune. You could approach your HR team, your manager, or an independent coach for this kind of support. A couple of short sessions may be all you need to gain some much needed head-space and planning time.
The advice from the team here is fantastic: move into an encouraging management style, assess skills, focus on behaviour change, hold coaching conversations, build the team, and get support. I love all of this! If you have budget, some team building and problem solving sessions could be really useful too. If you don’t, there are a lot of ways you can also coach yourself.
Building on Rachel’s advice, take about 15 minutes or so to reflect on your approach. We really like using a learning log approach to self-coaching. This involves asking yourself the following questions: what happened in this situation (for example, a colleague asking for help)? Describe objective facts only. Then: what went well, and what did not go so well? From this assessment, what else do you think would help? Identify actions you can take next time. The benefit is even stronger if you then repeat the exercise after you try those actions out, creating a continuous loop of self-directed coaching and learning! Doing this for just 15 minutes a week can really accelerate your own learning and build confidence.
If you’d like to develop your coaching skills, take a look at the Coaching skills for managers training programme.
You can also contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.
Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org. While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.