Creating critical thinkers

10 questions that help your team solve problems (so you don’t have to)

By Mel Savage

Mel Savage is an executive coach and founder of The Career Reset, specializing in career and business planning. She has 25-plus years of corporate experience working in senior management with McDonald’s Corporation and in partnership with Coca-Cola, Kraft, Ford, General Motors, the NHL and the IOC. She is also the host of The Career Reset podcast. You can find out more at thecareerreset.com.


The role of great managers is not to “make sure things get done,” but rather to “help people get things done.” This little nuance is the difference between telling people what to do and helping people figure out what to do.

Helping people think for themselves is how you build a high-performing team of critical thinkers who solve problems and move your business forward.

But where do you start? How do you teach people to solve problems and think for themselves?

When one of your people presents a problem, the instinct of most leaders is to either tell people how to solve the problem or ask them what they want to do about it.

Both of those tactics are not ideal.

When you tell people how to solve the problem you might get a short-term result, but your people are not learning to think for themselves.

And while asking people “what do you think you should do” sounds more nurturing, it’s still not overly effective.

I used to do it all the time. I’d say “don’t come to me with a problem unless you have a solution.” And then you know what would happen? They stopped coming to me with problems. I know that sounds like a good thing. But it wasn’t. 

The problems were still happening, but my people didn’t see any value in coming to me because all I would say is “what do you want to do about it?”

Your job as a leader is not to tell people what to do, nor leave them out on their own. Your job is to help them figure it out.

As a leader, when someone comes to you with a problem, your role is to FOCUS ON THEM, not on the problem. 

When you focus on the problem, you stop focusing on the person. And as a manager, your job is to focus on the person and let the PERSON focus on solving the problem.

How do you do that? That’s easy.

Care about the person more than the problem. You already know how to care about people. You do it all the time. Tap into that nature and do it with your team.

Get curious. Curiosity means you have no preconceived judgments or ideas about the person or the situation. Just be open to what’s being served up to you without making assumptions.

Help them think it through. Here are 10 questions you can ask to help your people solve problems.

1. What help do you need thinking this through? Do you just need a sounding board, or are you really stuck? I like to ask this question so I understand what people need from me.

2. What’s the overall objective/goal? Ground them in the big picture.

3. What are you trying to achieve here? 

4. What’s getting in your way? 

5. What are the possible solutions? Help them brainstorm. If they say they don’t know, don’t let them off the hook. Reassure them it’s a safe environment and ask them to guess. Or tell them to come back in 10 minutes with a few options.

6. What do you want to do next? Which of those options aligns with your goal?

7. What are the possible outcomes if you do that? How will you handle those outcomes?

8. Who do you need to help you with this solution? 

9. How will you engage them? 

10. What help do you need from me to make this happen?

You may not need all these questions in every situation. The more you work through this with your team, the faster the process will go. 

The big benefit over the long term is you have a high-performing team that needs you less and values you more.

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