One question leads to a powerful team.
“David, I just don’t have time. There’s so much to do that some days I just want to give up!” Lynn was a midlevel manager in a mid-sized healthcare company. She’d sought out coaching because the demands of her job felt unbearable. She needed a powerful team, but that seemed impossible.
Between day-to-day problem solving and her supervisor’s expectations, she’d been working 60-hour weeks, her health was suffering, and she’d reached the end of her rope.
Have you ever felt like Lynn?
As we talked, it became clear that Lynn cared. She was passionate about her people and their patients. But her passion had caused her to take on way too much and fail to build a powerful team.
To course-correct, we started with four words. Lynn began to ask one question regularly: “How can I help?”
Have You Lost Your Mind?
When I was an overwhelmed manager and a mentor first suggested that I ask my team, “How can I help?” I thought she was nuts. I’m sure I looked at her with the same stare of incredulity our clients give us when we make the same suggestion today.
When you can barely keep your head above water, the last thing you feel like doing is to go ask your team how you can help. You’re just asking for more work, right?
This is a common misconception about what it really means to help your team. As a leader, you are in a unique position to help your team in specific ways that no one else can.
However, this does not mean doing their work for them. What it means is to ensure your team has what they need to be effective, to remove obstacles to success, and to help them develop their own abilities to take responsibility and problem solve.
When you give your team the help they genuinely need, that only you can provide, two things happen. First, they become more productive, and second, you have more time for the work only you can do.
What to Look for to Build a Powerful Team
When you ask your team “How can I help,” listen for three specific areas of need.
1. Equipment and Skills They Need
Early in my leadership career, I had a superstar team member named Sue. She was a fabulous person and a wonderful team member. She was motivated, always thinking about how to improve her work, and an outstanding goal-setter.
One morning, we sat down together for a quarterly meeting. During these meetings with Sue, I often took notes, just trying to keep up, as she covered all her projects, goals, and ideas. She appreciated a sounding board to process her ideas and determine which ones were worth pursuing. After we processed her projects and goals, I stood up to leave and said in passing, “You’ve got a good plan, anything else I can do to help?”
She thought for a minute and said, “I’m not a technology person, but my computer’s a little slow.”
“Why don’t you show me?” I replied.
She walked me over to her computer and turned it on.
Twenty minutes later, it had finally come to life. That computer wasn’t just slow – it was glacial.
How embarrassing! One of my highly productive team members did not have the basic resources she needed to do her job well.
When you ask your team “How can I help?” be on the lookout for areas where they lack the resources that they need to be effective. Also, pay attention to skills and training.
In rapidly changing work environments, it is all too easy to assume people have what they need to do their job. Don’t assume—ask! It’s sad to think about how much time she would have lost and how many opportunities she would have missed if Sue hadn’t got a better computer.
2. Obstacles You Can Remove
The second area to listen for when you ask your team “How can I help?” includes red tape, bureaucratic nonsense, inter-departmental foot-dragging and all the other silly barriers they encounter inside your organization. Work is tough enough without those sorts of things dragging down your team’s productivity.
When your team encounters these obstacles and they’ve done what they can to solve it themselves, it’s time to pick up the phone or go have a visit with the people creating the barrier.
Have a conversation where you judiciously use your position and influence to remove those barriers, cut through red tape, or ask a “How can we?” question to meet the needs of both groups and get things moving.
3. Gaps in Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
The third thing to look for when you ask “How can I help,” are gaps in your team’s ability to solve problems.
Do you do your team’s thinking for them? Wish they would solve problems on their own? Or get so involved with their projects you don’t have time for your own work?
If so, these are signs your team needs to develop their problem-solving skills. Other signals include team members repeatedly making the same errors or frequently saying “I don’t know” when you ask about the next steps.
When you pick up these signals, resist the urge to chastise or jump in and solve the problem. Neither option builds a more powerful team.
Instead, use this opportunity to help them develop their problem solving and critical thinking. Your most effective leadership tools in these situations are coaching questions.
A good question or two can quickly move the conversation back to the employee owning the problem and analyzing potential solutions, but they have to be good questions.
Poor questions place blame and dwell on failure. Eg:
- Who screwed up?
- Why did you do that?
- What were you thinking?
In contrast, healthy questions focus on learning and on the future, to generate ideas and solutions. Eg:
- What’s your goal?
- What have you tried?
- What are your options now?
- What would happen if you tried that?
Our 9 What’s Business Coaching method is a great way to help your team get on track, strengthen their ability to solve problems, and learn how they think so you can help them work through issues.
For Best Results
“How can I help?” is a powerful tool to help you grow a more powerful team, but you have to use it consistently. If you only ask when something is going wrong, your team will associate those words with a problem.
Be intentional to ask how you can help when you know things are going well. One of the best responses when you ask “How can I help?” is for your team to say, “We’re good—thanks!”
Regularly asking “How can I help?” lets your people know that you care and support them while giving you the insight you need to help them grow and become a more powerful team.
We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share your favorite questions that help you build a powerful team.
Your might also like:
How to Develop People When You Don’t Have the Time
Two Talent Development Mistakes Leaders Make (podcast episode)
Your second question, about “Obstacles You Can Remove”, raises the question of cutting through “bureaucratic nonsense”. But always bear in mind that the clever bureaucrat – they do exist! – will find ways to make the bureaucracy work. Perfecting what I think of as ‘red tape judo’ was my objective in a thirty-year previous exista3ence as a career bureaucrat. “What is the easiest way to tick all the boxes the organisation demands, whilst getting the best outcome for me and my client?”
What form that judo takes will vary from organisation to organisation. But it will be there. Find the right person who has mastered that judo; if they aren’t in your team, find them anyway and befriend them You will get a powerful reputation within the organisation for making things happen!
Robert, sounds like you have a black belt in red tape judo! Great advice – thanks for adding to the discussion.
I loved your piece about teams. Critical thinking would be so powerful if we could get people to understand and use it.Just for the heck of it, over 20 years ago people like us were given what I thought was a marvelous suggestion. It was that we use the word assist instead of the word help. Help can sound demeaning or therapeutic. Assist is so much cleaner and has no negative twist. Again, great piece of writing!
Robert, thanks for the assist! Great suggestion.