How to avoid being a "whack a mole" manager


It was a case of “Whack a Mole Management.” You know the carnival game—where the mole’s head pops out of holes and you have to whack it with a hammer. The managers were so busy whacking issues as they popped up, they never took the time to proactively fix what the underlying problems were. 

From where I sit (which is often at the table with a team in crisis mode), the solution is to stop whacking and start afresh. The old argument can be made, “I don’t have time to be proactive,” but in truth, without some proactive problem solving, the whacking game gets pretty old and exhausting. 

If fire-fighting is wearing you down, here are some ideas that may help you solve some underlying causes. 

Facilitate weekly problem-solving sessions.

I’ve noticed that most teams that are reactive don’t meet together regularly. Or, if they do meet regularly, the meetings are once a month or only for delivering one-way information, like updates. 

Healthy, proactive teams usually meet weekly—even if it’s only for 20 minutes or so. The problem with monthly meetings is that by the time the meeting occurs, there are too many operational changes and other things to cram into the hour. The meeting either goes on for several hours, or the smaller problems never get on the agenda. 

In addition, one-way meetings might be good for conveying policy changes or showcasing what each department is doing, but it never allows for the open dialogue about the nagging issues that end up burrowing underground and pop up as a mole, later. 

“But I ask people for agenda items and no one gives me any,” one manager complained to me recently. Often, the manager only allows time at the end of the meeting to bring up “any problems or concerns.” Unfortunately, no one wants to bring up a problem with only five minutes left to discuss it. 

If this is the case, the leader should be observant about what some of the problems are and choose one to put on the agenda to be discussed first. Then the discussion process might look like this: 

  1. Share complaints about how work is being scheduled
  2. What might be causing this problem? (Brainstorm a list)
  3. What solution could we test? (List group ideas, or if no- one talks, subgroup into smaller groups for 15 minutes, to generate solution ideas)
  4. Action plan (Who, when, what). It seems so simple and straightforward, yet many managers don’t invite the group to work on the problem together. The manager either tries to dictate a solution or talks one-on-one with individuals, so people lobby for their own idea.
Stop being the hero.

Many managers earned their promotion because they had a reputation as a problem-solver. Unfortunately, if a manager still clings to that role, he cheats the rest of the team out of learning how to solve problems. In addition, the team never feels the ownership and satisfaction that comes from tackling a problem together and fixing it.

These managers end up being a bottleneck. Every action has to be approved by the manager. Even when the team comes up with a solution that is worth trying, the manager has to tweak it to have his hand in it. These managers mean well but are more focused on themselves than on the team they are leading. They are over-controlling the process of problem solving and eventually they will be the only mole whacker. 

Great leaders understand that employees don’t want to be rescued—they want to be led. And that means providing the forum for letting them understand the issues and work together to solve them. 

Corner the problem mole.

Sometimes the heart of the problem is a problem performer. Perhaps the problem person bends the rules, so two other mole heads pop up to complain. Or, maybe they don’t show up or don’t carry their own weight, which causes more rumbling underground. 

If the manager doesn’t isolate the problem person, and hold him or her accountable for meeting the standards, there will be a lot more energy spent on whacking than on working. If the standards aren’t clear, it’s time to put them on the agenda and spend time clarifying and agreeing on what they are. 

When you give everyone the opportunity to work together to remove the underground  problems, less time is spent reacting and the team will have a lot more fun working toward their goals. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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