Early in my career I thought showing my worth on a team meant having my ideas win. I was far too attached to those ideas, which left me frustrated when they weren’t chosen and worst of all made working with others more difficult. Over time I learned the right approach wasn’t to dictate solutions, but to facilitate problem solving. This approach has benefited everyone involved, led to better solutions, and to better relationships.
Being a Dictator
Dictating solutions, be it as an engineering lead or a product manager or from entirely outside a team, creates a single point of failure and stifles the creativity of one’s team. The dictator becomes a bottleneck for the team, which slows down decision making, robs others of a chance to grow and contribute, and ironically stunts the dictator’s own growth as they spend time answering questions for others rather than looking ahead. Dictating solutions also alienates others and harms working relationships when mixed with poor communication or aggression.
Often this sort of behavior isn’t malicious, the dictator may even believe they’re helping. People inadvertently cause harm in an attempt to be the go-to person, doing their best to remove a bit of the burden from others. That’s what I thought I was doing many years ago, and it wasn’t until I saw others facilitate that I realized the benefits of intentionally making space for others to contribute.
Being a Facilitator
Leading as a facilitator means coming to one’s team with a problem instead of dictating a solution, then working with them to find the right approach regardless of whose idea it is. This shows the team their input is valued, which helps them become invested in the work and it makes space for others to learn, teach, and show their creativity.
Sometimes there’s a lack of ideas because the problem space is poorly defined or too big. In the former case I like to ask questions to help better frame the problem, and in the latter I like to break the problem down into smaller problems to be solved. If there are many problems I like to explicitly delegate finding a solution to each problem to a single person. They don’t have to figure it out on their own, but they’re responsible for coming back to the group with a solution.
Being a facilitator also means admitting one’s mistakes and making peace with letting go of good ideas in the interest of moving the team forward. In the past I’ve made the mistake of coming to my team with a solution, and even when it was a good solution that action left them wondering what their role was aside from execution. This behavior is sometimes displayed by engineers who transition into management roles—that was certainly the case for me. Solving engineering problems was something I was comfortable doing and it was (and sometimes still is) easy to fall into wanting to overstep in the interest of being helpful. That’s a great way to waste talented minds and prevent people from learning. This isn’t limited to new engineering managers though—I’ve observed this behavior at various levels of leadership.
These days I’m better at making space for others to thrive, and it comes from one simple question: am I coming to my team with a solution or a problem? I’m still a problem-solver at heart, so when I do have a suggestion I make sure to frame it as an option, one option, something to consider and not a prescription. Of course, sometimes I do need to step in, and it’s a fine line, but I try to do so by asking questions to ensure we consider key problems we need to solve. That’s because, as always, it’s about the problems, not the solutions.