In a startup, the early staff has to build literally everything from scratch, figure everything out, and solve every problem. There are no playbooks, rules, norms, or guidelines. There is just get stuff done, be scrappy and figure it out.
It is a special breed of person who survives and thrives in very early start-up days. An early-stage startup employee is usually agile, adaptable, curious, self-motivated. They love inventing, making, and executing. And they are usually really, really good at figuring things out, inventing ways to do things, and solving problems. That’s true from software developers to salespeople and everyone in between.
But then comes a stage of growth & maturity where the fundamental makeup of the employee base starts to shift as people are hired and onboarded rapidly. Your company is more established and so it attracts a different type of candidate. People join your company and there are norms, there are playbooks, there are guidelines and patterns.
At this juncture, founders and early employees often find themselves frustrated at being the ‘only person around here who can do this’ or the ‘only one who can solve problems and get stuff done’. (Or conversely, we don’t want people to solve problems on their own because we are control freaks and have trouble delegating—but that’s for another article).
What is hard to see when you are in this stage is that it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy—we create an environment that causes people to not solve problems, and then we are stressed because our newer staff doesn’t know anything or don’t solve problems on their own and they seek counsel about every little thing.
When an employee is new, of course we need to provide guidance and information. But, over time if we are the type of leader who answers every question or solves every problem for our people, we create a culture of learned helplessness.
Clinically speaking, “Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.” And from a professional perspective learned helplessness happens when people feel they can’t change things for the better in the workplace or don’t know how to.
But this concept doesn’t apply just to making things better. It really applies to learning things independently and solving problems.
Learned helplessness often crops up at a certain stage in a company’s growth when leaders and managers answer every question and solve every problem brought to them, versus empowering their staff to learn how to do so. The culture shifts from one where people learn on their own, through their own natural drive and character, to one where people wait to be taught. That’s an inflection point in your culture that can make or break how you scale.
Let’s face it—it can be easier to just fix something, or answer a question, especially when we are moving fast and trying to get stuff done. But that doesn’t scale. To scale we have to hire people who are great problem solvers, create a culture of problem-solving, and teach our managers to hold others accountable to learn new things and solve problems.
But if you are providing all the answers and every solution even the best problem solvers can slip into learned helplessness, bringing you every little question and decision versus acting autonomously and figuring stuff out.
How to create a culture of getting stuff done and solving problems
When an employee brings you a problem or question it can be tempting to solve every problem yourself or answer everything you are asked. It’s just easier. Until it happens so much that you are annoyed and ready to burst.
Part of our role as leaders is to foster an environment that encourages people to problem solve and think independently. Of course we are here to help and support our team, but that needs to be balanced with letting people skin their knee and giving them the space to explore on their own.
When someone brings you a problem or question rather than answering them, ask them questions. Here are some good ones to try.
- What have you tried so far? Where have you looked so far?
- How would you define the problem? What has been its impact? What is it that we are trying to accomplish?
- Is this a reoccurring problem?
- What resources do you feel we need to move to the next step?
- What is something that you have not tried yet?
- If I wasn’t here today and you had to solve this (learn this/do this/execute this), what would you do?
These open-ended questions help you get your bearings. They also give the other person a moment to think through the issue, possibly from a different perspective. The other thing to do—my favorite—is to just remain silent. If someone brings you a question and you are quiet, they will often start speaking the answer or solution on their own. Questions, and silence, exercised consistently, and across the organization helps create a culture where employees believe they can solve problems, create solutions, and learn on their own. The trick is to give people room to make some mistakes and ensure you have a culture where there isn’t fear of punishment when people get it wrong.