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Good Influence

Want to find better solutions? Get to the heart of the problem.

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One of my all-time best bosses was a guy named Bob Rivers, who worked in the University of Cincinnati admissions office. Bob hired me for an internship when I was a starving grad student, finished with classes and out of funding. But just after we set a start date, I hit a snag with my master’s thesis – I needed at least an extra month to work on it.

I called Bob, ready to beg. To my surprise, he said, “Your degree is more important than processing transcripts. Tell me what day you can start.” On that first day and every week thereafter, he asked how my thesis was coming. Bob knew what mattered to me. And he made sure it mattered to him, too. Bob knew what a lot of bosses don’t: You have to get to the need behind the request. I asked to delay my start date, but I needed someone who could see I had higher priorities outside of work.

Imagine this: A member of your team storms into your office. He’s sick of requesting PTO in advance while his coworker always calls off same-day. What’s your first instinct? Probably either to shut him down (“not your business”), explain the problem away (“his kid was sick”) or make vague promises (“I guess I can talk to him”).

So, overtly the guy wants what? More time off? Maybe. But what’s really making the vein in his forehead bulge? It’s not the scheduling itself. It’s his desire to work in a fair atmosphere where he feels valued. Creating the time to discuss the real problem – though I wouldn’t label it that way in the moment – is a major factor in retaining your top performers. Because maybe Angry Guy isn’t just annoyed about his coworker. Maybe this is part of a pattern of events in which he’s felt overworked and undervalued. If he’s a slacker, hey, OK. But what if he’s an all-star? If you let every frustration bubble to the surface, he’s gone.

When presented with a problem, many higher-ups just want to fix it. The problem is, managers usually get “it” wrong, assuming the first thing someone says is the most important; it may simply be what’s top of mind for them. Be careful not to confuse urgency with importance.

Bob had that figured out, and he got to the heart of what motivated me. I was likely the university’s most devoted intern for a time. Sadly, it was the only way I ever thanked him. Bob died of a rare neurological disorder just months after hiring me. I’ll always regret not thanking him when I had the chance.

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Rest in peace, Bob. And thanks. You were one of the good ones.

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