Confidence and Problem-solving

If you want to boost someone’s confidence, help them develop problem-solving skills.


I just finished reading Thomas Sowell’s book, The Vision of the Anointed (opens in a new link). Mr. Sowell does an excellent job of offering insights into the ways in which we, the general public, are fed information that influence our thinking in ways that do not serve us well.

What is missing in this treatise is a solution to the problem. Other than making readers aware of the pitfalls that exist, Mr. Sowell offers no solutions to this problem. This realization led me to recall experiences from my corporate career regarding problem solving and lessons these experiences taught me. Here’s what I learned.

Problem-solving: not management’s role

One of the things I discovered is that too many managers view problem-solving as their responsibility. They feel that it is their responsibility to provide solutions for the problems their direct reports face. What an onerous mantel to take upon oneself.

For one thing, who do you know that has all the answers? Oh, certainly there are some that believe they do, but do they really? Of course not…despite what they believe. So why would we, as managers, feel that it is incumbent on us to have all the answers?

Another reason for not accepting this mantel is that we slow the development of our direct reports’ problem-solving skills and, consequently, growth in their confidence. One of the things that I communicated to my direct reports when I was in corporate was “never bring a problem to me without a proposed solution.” If they did, I told them to come back when they had a solution.

This simple tactic accelerated the development of their problem-solving abilities as well as their confidence in coming up with effective solutions to any problem they faced. Over time that meant that I spent less time solving problems and more time developing ways to improve our performance in the future.

Questions, not solutions

Another lesson I learned is that when I saw a better solution than the one a direct report proposed, I didn’t tell them that I felt there was a better solution. Instead, I’d ask questions like:

  • How would that work when…?
  • What would happen if…?
  • How will that impact [this group]?

By using questions to highlight things I felt they’d overlooked, I would get them to reevaluate their proposal. If I was right, they’d reach the same conclusion I had. Plus they validated that conclusion with their own experiences. By discovering the solution on their own, they gained confidence in their ability to find even better solutions than the one they had proposed. In other words, they learned to explore more options than their previous experiences suggested.

If I was wrong in my beliefs, I learned something that was valuable plus I could congratulate the person on a well-thought-out solution. Whether through their discovery of a better solution or in the congratulations they received for an effective solution, their confidence grew.

The insights gained in my leadership roles have proven to work as well in my dealings with family, friends, colleagues, indeed, with anyone I meet. 

Tradeoffs, not solutions

In fairness to Mr. Sowell, one of his tenets is that there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. In being true to his beliefs Mr. Sowell, in The Vision of the Anointed, isn’t offering a solution because there isn’t one. There is no single policy, regulation or legislative action that can prevent people who champion a cause from slanting the “facts” to support their cause. If we are being honest with ourselves, it’s something each of us has done to gain something we wanted. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it understandable.

Mr. Sowell is placing the responsibility on us, his readers, to become more conscious of how our thinking is being influenced and to ask questions of those who readily accept what they’re being told to get them to discover the inaccuracies in what they’re hearing.

One of the things that these questions can do is help people to understand the tradeoffs between various potential solutions. A simple example is to recall how your spending changed in light of the recent 2008 recession or the pandemic. During the recession many of us shifted our spending to what was most important to us…not necessarily what was most needed. The pandemic saw people shift from spending to paying down their debt and saving what they weren’t spending.

To Mr. Sowell’s point, there is no perfect solution. All “solutions” involve tradeoffs. With the questions we ask, whether in our personal relationships, at work or in evaluating proposed legislative and regulatory actions, we help others make better decisions between competing tradeoffs.

For you

Use Mr. Sowell’s insights to become critical in the examination of information you’re getting…regardless of the source. Question the facts and the proposed solution to see whether or not the facts are accurate and what tradeoffs the proposed solution involves. Then contact the appropriate parties to offer a better solution.

Is this a foolproof approach? Of course not. As we’ve seen all too often recently, our elected officials have their own agendas and the facts be damned. But the more of us who protest their actions, the more we can make others aware of the folly of what’s being proposed, the more well-considered our votes for elected officials become, the greater the likelihood that we’ll get better representation of the values we possess.

For our kids

Use the questioning process outlined above to challenge your child’s thinking. The more frequently you do this, the more often they evaluate their emotional reactions, the more adept they’ll become at getting to the solution that offers the best tradeoff for themselves and others.

Their critical thinking ability will help them stand out from the crowd in ways that others admire. They’ll also gain confidence in their ability to deal with any situation they face…another reason why others will admire and respect them.

Let others know that you love them by sharing this blog post. They’ll appreciate that you care.

I love hearing your thoughts and experiences, please share them in a comment.

If you’d like to enjoy great confidence, check out our Confidence Self-Study programs (opens in a new link). 

If you’d like to enrich the lives of others by teaching them to be more confident, check out our Teaching Confidence Instructor Certification program (opens in a new link).

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2 Responses

  1. bill prenatt

    Dale, Your approach to development through problem solving echo’s my experience. As a manager and leader, I considered my # 1 responsibility was to help the people that I worked with achieve their potential. Asking great questions and guiding them along the path of making good choices always led to a more confident subordinate.

    • dfurtwengler

      Bill, one of the things that intrigued me was that when I asked a direct report to stretch beyond their comfort level, even though I knew it was a slam dunk for them, their confidence would grow with each success and, ultimately, they became more aggressive in their own goal setting. I know that you share my joy in seeing others grow in confidence and ability. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

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