Are Your Employees Acting Like Cats?
As a nonprofit leader, does it ever feel like the people you hire to get work done are actually creating more work for you? That rather than simply doing what they were hired to do, they ask you a dizzying amount of questions first? And that they even see more problems than you ever knew existed but don’t seem to offer any solutions?
I’ve experienced that. Here’s a story that helped me train my direct reports to stop doing it.
The Story of the Cat and the Mole
At one nonprofit I led, we had a very engaged team. But often, my direct reports would come to me when they saw problems. They’d share the problem — something I often hadn’t noticed before. Then they’d just stare at me. As though it were my job to fix it. And, as a less mature leader, I thought it probably was my job to fix it.
One morning when the feeling of overwhelm was getting to a tipping point, I looked out the front door of my house. There, on the welcome mat, our cat had left us a dead mole smack in the middle of the welcome mat — again.
I remember my daughter telling me that cats will bring food to each other and even to humans as a sign of caring. She thought our cat might be worried we weren’t getting all the sustenance we needed. So it had gone hunting and gathering for us, leaving the bounty on our front step. According to my daughter, it was a gift of love.
That may be the case. But all I saw was a dead rodent on my welcome mat. A mess that we had to clean up.
Then it hit me: At work, my direct reports were also leaving dead moles on my doorstep!
Using This Lesson as a Nonprofit Leader
The next time a direct report left a problem on my desk, I told them the story of my cat and the mole. Though my cat may have had the best intentions, it wasn’t helping me. It was just creating more work. What I really needed was for the cat to take away the dead rodent.
Then I added a few lines that have been incredibly beneficial in the years since. I said, “Since you have the unique ability to identify this problem, a problem others hadn’t yet seen, I bet you have the ability to see some possible ways to address the problem. The next time you come to me with a problem, could you also bring three or four ways to take care of the issue?”
Helping Train Your Team to Think for Themselves
I wish I could say this was out of a confident, strategic vision I had for leadership. But it wasn’t. It was birthed out of frustration and overwhelm, coupled with a sincere desire to not get frustrated with my direct reports.
But as I kept telling this story, I found three important outcomes develop:
- My sense of overwhelm reduced some. I think this was because I was clearly telling my direct reports that they weren’t helping by merely pointing out a mess. But the story allowed me to say that without it sounding like I was upset with them.
- My team started to learn to think for themselves. It took time, and lots of repetitions of the dead rodent story, but direct reports started having a few ideas for solutions. Not all were good, but one usually was. I would ask them to pursue the most promising solution.
- Fewer rodents showed up on my welcome mat. As my team and I gained confidence in their ability to identify good solutions to problems they saw, they grew more confident in addressing the problem without coming to me first.
In the end, I realized that part of the reason people were dumping problems on my desk was that I’d allowed it. You might even say I trained them to do this until I started telling them about my cat and her attempts at being caring.
Seeing the problem now as a dead rodent on the doormat helped them to take the natural step of identifying ways to clean it up. And the conversations we had about their solutions helped them have a better understanding of how our nonprofit made decisions, especially how our organizational values actively guided our decision-making.
That led to them making their own decisions — and to me trusting them to do so.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and wishing your team would start thinking of solutions for themselves, feel free to tell them about my cat.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Related story: Do You Strive to Have ‘Top Gun’ Employees?
Concord Leadership Group founder Marc A. Pitman, CSP, helps leaders lead their teams with more effectiveness and less stress. Whether it’s through one-on-one coaching of executives, conducting high-engagement trainings or growing leaders through his ICF-accredited coach certification program, his clients grow in stability and effectiveness.
He is the author of "The Surprising Gift of Doubt: Use Uncertainty to Become the Exceptional Leader You Are Meant to Be" He’s also the author of "Ask Without Fear!"— which has been translated into Dutch, Polish, Spanish and Mandarin. A FranklinCovey-certified coach and Exactly What To Say Certified Guide, Marc’s expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences around the world both in person and with online presentations.
He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing '80s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family!