When you think of a star manager, a few traits probably come to mind: strong communicator, quick thinker, always willing to help. What you might not realize is that all these strengths neatly come together into something larger — something that sets great people managers apart from the good: problem-solving skills. 

A LinkedIn survey of over 2,000 professionals found that that first and foremost, employees want their managers to help them solve the challenges they face. But with so many managers thrown into their roles without formal training, and the (often false) assumption that problem-solving comes naturally for those who take on leadership positions, the opportunity to develop this increasingly important skill is often overlooked. As a manager, you may be wondering how you can develop stronger problem-solving abilities with an already ever-growing to-do list. The key? Changing some simple things in your everyday work routine, and the way you look at the problems that you and your direct reports face.

Reframe challenges into opportunities 

A good problem-solver is able to find opportunities for growth even in the most taxing situations. “Problems that need to be solved are often viewed in a negative way. Managers need to identify challenges, and how to turn those challenges into opportunities for success and actionable goals,” Deborah Cohn, Ph.D., a professor of marketing and management at the New York Institute of Technology, tells Thrive. If a direct report comes to you wondering how to address an issue — their team member is a procrastinator, for instance, which hurts their ability to get their work done  — try framing it as an opportunity to practice compassionate directness with their colleague. 

Observe others 

Learning about different problem-solving techniques can be as simple as observing other leaders in your organization. Cohn recommends paying attention to how key players solve problems, as well as the results of their decisions. Keep track of what works and what doesn’t, and then apply those findings to your own work. Cohn also suggests finding a mentor in your workplace who you can lean on for advice and bounce ideas off of when helping an employee through a challenge (or trying to solve one of your own). The key to this mentor relationship is to be accepting of guidance, Cohn says, and keeping an open mind to problem-solving strategies you wouldn’t have thought of or tried on your own. 

Work to identify the root of the problem 

A big part of effective problem-solving lies in your ability to get to the root of it. Research discussed in the Harvard Business Review finds that managers are often too quick to look for solutions before they truly understand the problems they face. What would happen if managers took a step back and tried to unravel the details before taking action? The research says they’d probably find more creative solutions. The next time a direct report surfaces a challenge, try approaching it from different angles. If they’re having a hard time meeting deadlines, maybe it isn’t an issue of prioritization, but a lack of engagement in their work — or something else you don’t see at first glance. Give yourself the time and space to really dig into and understand the issue before you jump in with the solution. 

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