Are you thwarting your employees? 5 tips to break you of 'fixing'

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comMarch 18, 2013 

OK, I admit it: I’m what leadership expert Jill Geisler would call an inveterate "fixer" — that is to say, someone in a position of workplace authority who habitually takes on work rather than delegating or teaching others how to do it themselves.

There was a time when I would have considered this an admirable trait, but explains the considerable downside to this leadership style. (The Cliffs Notes version: To fix is to hijack and minimize the contribution of others; to coach is to enable and inspire.)

Geisler is a former television newsroom executive and current senior faculty member of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that teaches management, ethical decision-making and other useful skills to journalists. Last week, I was among a contingent of Packet and Gazette editors who joined other McClatchy Newspapers newsroom leaders from around the region for a workshop conducted in part by Geisler. The session was the first in a new, collaborative training program by Poynter and the newspapers’ parent company.

Most of us have probably sat through these spiels at work, designed to tell us how to play nice with others. We sit there half awake, nod and bide time until the session is over, when we can get on with catching up on all the work that didn’t get done while we heard from experts.

But Geisler kept hitting me too close to home. I didn't nod; I squirmed. And I thought a lot about how many of the things I do with the intent of being helpful would be misconstrued by the hard-working folks in our newsroom to be something quite different.

I’m sure I wasn't alone.

For if ever there is a workplace that could use what Geisler promotes, it's a newsroom, where it is plain to see why fixers rise through the ranks. First, deadline pressure is daily and constant. Further, there never seems to be enough people or hours in the day to do all that we want or intend to do. And because teaching takes longer than fixing, there is safety and expedience in fixing, not to mention recognition for "getting things done."

Nonetheless, many who engage in fixing believe their people appreciate it when they shoulder a heavy workload, which, although true to an extent, ceases to be the case when the manager robs employees of a chance to contribute their ideas and participate in the very work they find satisfying. Fixing sometimes entails quite a bit of ego, too. Some managers just think they’re smarter or more competent than the people they lead, and even if that is not what motivates their behavior, fixers can leave their employees with that impression.

In the long run, teaching is preferable because it imparts autonomy — who doesn’t want more of a say in how they do their work? It also invites people to contribute to — and even help shape — a company's goals.

Of course, the newsroom isn't the only place this idea is applicable. To the contrary, it's nearly universal. So although this isn't the usual fodder I pack into Inside Pages, I thought some of you might find Geisler's insights useful and interesting. (And this list is by no means exhaustive, so if you’d like to read more, you can read Geisler's book or this story on Poynter site for a synopsis.)

Great leaders:

Understand coaching, not fixing, is the critical leadership skill.

Help others succeed. This is another way of saying, "This work is not just about me."

Realize that understanding their jobs makes them good; understanding the role emotion plays in their performance and the performance of their employees takes them to the next level.

Know people fall in love with ideas and solutions of their own creation. This might sound like a recommendation to manipulate, and I suppose there is some value in the art of convincing someone your idea is theirs. But Geisler also encourages supervisors to listen to their employees' ideas — they can have good ones, too.

Ignoring conflict won’t make it better, and it surely won’t make it disappear. Most of us, at some point in our lives, work for a boss who seems to know only confrontation. But passive-aggressiveness and denial are probably more common among those in authority ... and just as corrosive.

Of course, it is one thing to know these things cognitively; it is another to practice them habitually. In fact, in the week since hearing Geisler’s message, several times I’ve said to myself, "Jeff, there you go again; cut it out."

Like newspapering itself, there is no real finish line to the work of leadership. It requires a patient relentlessness. This evokes another of Geisler's axioms: Managing change is a constant responsibility.

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