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Be More Effective at Work

People at work struggle with similar issues that get in the way of their effectiveness. A single problem underlies most of their struggles: an imbalance between self-reliance and interdependence. We value self-reliance for good reason: we need to achieve as individuals for the sake of our personal identity, confidence and career advancement.

Despite recognizing the value of interdependence, it's easy to view it through an individual’s eyes. Interdependence can be viewed as a necessary evil in any group effort. Even if you really enjoy the social contact, this is your need, which may not make you effective in working with, and through, others. Some like working with others simply because they like to draw attention to themselves - the exact opposite of healthy interdependence.

How do you see yourself and your role at work? Are you primarily an individual contributor, expert or technical authority? How readily can you play the role of a catalyst, facilitator or coach? Making this shift entails doing less selling/telling and more asking, where the most engaging question is: “What do you think?”
Here are some common issues that can stem from this role identity dilemma:

  • Difficulty influencing people
  • Colleagues not delivering on promises
  • Effective delegation
  • Motivating people
  • Workload pressure
  • Fragile confidence

The Problem of Self-Reliance

We think of self-reliance as doing things on our own with little or no help from others, but it also implies thinking for ourselves and making our own decisions. Liking to be an expert or authority means being a solution-generator, someone who analyzes problems and comes up with solutions. This is like scoring goals in sports. And who doesn’t like scoring goals?

A noted executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote: “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” in which he discussed the 20 worst habits of executives – various ways of mistreating people that all boil down to one bad habit – too strong a need to be right.

This is the core problem of solution-generators. They base their confidence on being able to score goals with great solutions, hence the need to sell their views to others, which in turn creates an us-them attitude. People who strongly need to be right raise their voices, intimidate or use manipulative tactics to get their way. Needing to be right, they are also defensive when challenged: a sure recipe for poor interdependence.

Managers can also be individual contributors. If you like to see yourself as the main authority figure and decision maker in your department, then even though you have people reporting to you, your style of operating may still be that of a solution-generator and individual contributor.

So, there are two approaches to working with people: the self-reliant expert and the engaging catalyst. Let’s compare how these two styles work so you can choose which one you would prefer to use in future. Or what might be the best balance between the two styles for you.

Influencing People

Self-reliant approach: Doing our own thinking and deciding leads to a PUSH approach to selling your solutions. Naturally, you can vary HOW you push people. You can state the cold hard facts as you would in presenting a business case. But your colleagues might resent you for trying to look so clever, for acting as if you have better ideas than they do.
You may try a more emotionally intelligent approach by basing your case on how it would, at least partially, meet the needs of your audience. This approach has a better chance of success but it can still arouse resentment, or at least inattentive listening if your communication style is overly one-way.
Engaging approach: Here, you involve people in developing a solution. The level of involvement can vary across a wide spectrum. Minimally, you might present your solution and ask for feedback. When you get objections, you might ask how your audience feels their concerns might be addressed. This is more facilitative than simply presenting counterarguments, which keeps you in the expert, push mode.
At the other end of the scale is developing the solution with key stakeholders. Instead of offering them your solution, you state the objective to be achieved, then ask questions to draw solutions out of the group. This is the most facilitative style. It takes more time but you may gain a better solution and, more importantly, one that is widely owned, that others are committed to because they helped develop it.

Colleagues Not Delivering on Promises

Self-reliant approach: When people miss your deadlines, you remind them of their responsibilities, express your disappointment and perhaps use a threatening tone of voice. Equally, you could use a pleading tone, which is just as ineffective. Both approaches cater to your needs as a self-reliant, individual contributor.
Engaging approach: Show interest in your key stakeholders, get to know them, what they want out of their careers and what kinds of tasks they like and don’t like doing. Explore whether there is something you can do to help them, perhaps by offering a developmental project. Don’t rely only on guessing what they might want, ask them. Alternatively, discuss how you can work together more collaboratively. Ask, rather than suggest, as much as possible. Ask how you could make their lives easier, seeking a mutually beneficial arrangement. Even if you can’t offer them anything, just showing interest and respect for their needs and challenges by asking supportive questions can make them more open to helping you. The chances of success are greater than the push approach.

Effective Delegation

Self-reliant approach: Not being sure if certain team members can or will deliver, you tell them in detail what needs to be done and how. You then tell them that you will follow up at some point, which may make them feel more coerced. This is a recipe for compliance rather than real commitment.
Engaging approach: State the objective and express confidence in your team members’ ability to deliver. Then say something like: “Just to be sure we are on the same page, why don’t you talk me through how you would approach this task? What do you see as the key steps? What challenges do you foresee and how would you address them?”

The key here is to get them to develop their own plan of attack so they own it. You can ask further questions if something is missing in their plan, resisting the temptation to resort to telling, as much as possible. You can also ask them how often they would like to touch base. Getting them to suggest a suitable follow up schedule doesn’t mean that you can’t then suggest something different. The point is to involve them by asking instead of merely telling.

Motivating People

Self-reliant approach: The conventional wisdom is to use praise. You are told to catch people doing something right and pat them on the back. This is better than nothing but it assumes that you can regularly observe what your team members are doing. Worse, it is a bit superficial and it is your solution.
Engaging approach: One of the best motivators is to show interest in others. At work, this mainly means asking for, and respecting, the opinions of your team members. What is more rewarding than your boss asking for your advice on a difficult problem? This is more motivating because it makes people feel genuinely valued. Also, giving them a stake in the solution encourages greater ownership.

Another engaging practice is to spend the first 10 minutes of regular team meetings asking team members to say what they have done since the last meeting that they are pleased about. Giving them a chance to describe their achievements can motivate them to do more to talk about next meeting. This approach is engaging because, again, you are asking rather than telling. Of course you can add your own observations and reinforce theirs.

Workload Pressure

Self-reliant approach: Being an individual contributor means taking a lot of psychological ownership upon your shoulders. Accountability is good but not if it means failing to foster a fair degree of shared ownership. Taking too much upon yourself can mean doing too much checking up on your team members. This can create a vicious circle: the more you check up on things, the less your team members feel they need to bother, which in turn convinces you that only you are really responsible.
Engaging approach: Use coaching questions to foster more accountability in your team. When team members ask you to tell them what to do or how to solve a problem, ask them how they would tackle it. Use open questions to draw a solution out of them. This takes some of the weight off of your shoulders because others develop their own solutions and plans. Ask them what steps they might take to ensure that their targets will be achieved. Ask them what success criteria they could use and how they will know whether they are on track. More asking and less telling leads to greater shared ownership.

A symptom of taking too much ownership is the feeling that your team members are too busy to take on anything extra. You are deciding this in your own head aren’t you? Why not ask them whether they might like an assignment that would play to their strengths or develop them? Ask them how they might readjust some of their other priorities in order to take on this extra task. The old excuse: “I’m too busy” really means: “I’ve got other things to do that are more urgent/important or more interesting.” The key is to involve them in deciding what else they can take on and how they might manage their workload rather than making assumptions in your own head, like the self-reliant person.

Fragile Confidence

Self-reliant approach: Individual contributors base their confidence on their ability to generate solutions, very difficult to do consistently in a complex, fast changing world. Not only do you risk not having all the information you need, but there is also the danger of making unwarranted assumptions about your customers’ needs (internal or external). You worry about that important meeting coming up. You want to be fully prepared so you aren’t embarrassed by a question you can’t answer.
Engaging approach: Try basing some of your confidence on being able to ask good questions rather than on being able to come up with answers. The beauty of this approach is that the same questions can be asked regardless of the content being discussed: What do you think? What do you see as the main issues here? What do you see as viable solutions? What are the pros and cons of your preferred approach? Now, when you go to a meeting, you don’t need to have all the answers to questions. You can ask what others think might work or, if your questions don’t yield an agreed solution, you can always promise to get back to them.

Managing Expectations

When you change your style from self-reliant expert to catalyst/facilitator, you should manage people’s expectations. With your team members, you might say that you want to start placing more emphasis on developing them, using questions to encourage them to do more thinking for themselves so they don't think you don't have the answers yourself. With colleagues and other stakeholders, you might explain that you can add more value by focusing on the bigger picture rather than being overly immersed in detail just so you can provide them with immediate answers. Explain that you see your role as getting the best out your team, not doing their jobs for them.


Shifting your focus does not mean never devising your own solutions. You don’t have to totally give up being an expert. The truth is, there is often more fun in solving business problems than in being a facilitator who asks what others think. It really depends on where you want to go with your career, recognizing the limitations of an excessive focus on being the authority, the chief goal-scorer, however much fun it may be. 

See also: Questions for SuccessHow to Engage PeopleConfidence at Work and How to Contribute More in Meetings and other posts under Success at Work.

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