Creating Gaps: How to Build Leaders and Problem Solvers on your Teams

Jane doesn’t even raise her eyes from her monitor when Frank barges in with a quick question about how to handle a customer situation. Frustrated by the seemingly endless string of inane questions from her team, Jane barks a directive, and Frank shuffles back to his desk.

How would you rate Jane’s management effectiveness on a scale of 1–10? Personally, I’d give it a 1. Problem solved? Yes. Problem solver created? No.

As managers and leaders, we often think we need to know all the answers and direct all the traffic. But is that the best way to get the most out of our teams?

At the leadership coaching and training firm I run with two partners, we coach our clients on “creating gaps” to give members of their teams spaces to fill in. In this way you develop problem solving skills within your teams, and make people feel valued for their ideas and insights, and not just their time. When we create gaps are also able to delegate decision-making more effectively, and we free up our own time for higher order activities.

Gallup research has indicated that organization that actively engaged and empower their employees enjoy a 21% increase in productivity and a 22% increase in profitability. So clearly, this is not simply a question of style — it’s a bottom line issue for the company.

Creating gaps is no easy feat. In fact, it’s somewhat counter-intuitive. As leaders, we are ultimately responsible for the end product. We are the ones accountable to our boss, or if you are the CEO, to the board. This is why micro-managing is so tempting. But we also know how corrosive that can be to morale and goodwill in an organization.

To create more gaps — more spaces for members of your team to learn to fill — try these simple tactics:

1) Create longer lead times. When decisions need to be made quickly, we often resort to old habits of micro-managing. If you give yourself more time, you will feel less impulse to fill all the gaps.

2) Ask guiding questions. Done well, the Socratic method can be empowering. Done poorly, it can be condescending. Leading your employee to the right answer through a series of questions can be incredibly effective if you mind your tone and are patient.

3) Hire people who know what you don’t. This can be scary. As leaders, we should know all the answers, right? Not at all. The President has scores of advisors who are domain experts to help him make decisions that impact many issues at once. Admit you don’t know everything, and you’ll be amazed at how members of your team step up to fill in the gaps.

4) Be patient and selective. Many employees aren’t used to being entrusted with decision-making or problem solving. Some aren’t interested in it. With time and patience, you will see natural leaders develop within your ranks and know whom to invest more training and time in.

5) Give away the credit. Your people will continue to stretch themselves and fill in the gaps you create if they feel recognized and rewarded. Even a brief mention in an email to the team or in a staff meeting can make someone feel valued. And of course remembering the little things during performance reviews helps too.

Creating gaps can be nerve-wracking. It goes against our instincts to find a solution and move on. But it is an investment in your team that will most likely lead to greater productivity (and fewer problems to solve) in the future.