What’s your problem?

Recently we were working with a group of leaders and discussing an issue about an employee. The issue the leader brought up was how to get an employee to look for multiple options in order to solve a specific problem. As we do in many sessions, the group took turns asking questions about the situation. No one is allowed to offer solutions until the issue is fully vetted. This process forces the other leaders not to jump in to solve the problem right away, but get to the root cause of the situation.

Through this process, the team discovered that the situation that was being discussed was merely a symptom of a much larger issue. The leader that brought the situation to the group had been repeatedly frustrated by some of the actions of this employee but had not looked beyond whatever the current ‘problem’ was.

How often does it happen where we address concerns with an employee multiple times but don’t really get the problem solved? 

From an early age, we are taught to solve problems and give answers. Your first-grade teacher posed a question. You solved the problem quickly and answered. Score! And that continued into your work world. Someone poses a problem. We find the solution.

As leaders, we need to step back and think about this. In many cases, the problems we face on a day-to-day basis are not always that difficult. An employee is not meeting a deadline. We go talk to that employee. Problem solved. But once in a while, we are faced with something that, on the surface, seems uncomplicated; but try as we might, we seem to have to address the same issue over and over. Never really solving the problem.

We know…you’re in a hurry; trying to solve the problem so you can move onto the next thing. Yes, solving the problem or preventing the problem from happening is the goal, but sometimes we need to slow down and find out what the real issue is. Here are a few ideas that may help you:

  • Ask questions. Talk to the employee about what you’re seeing. Then ask questions or use open statements to get the employee talking more about the situation until you see the root cause of the issue. This gets the employee involved in the process of creating the solution.
  • Look for patterns. Start looking at your notes and reflect on conversations to discover whether there is a pattern that looks different than the specific symptom you are seeing. The hard part is taking the time to reflect and pushing yourself to see beyond the issue at hand.
  • Ask for help. Get together with a couple of co-workers or with a coach. Give them the issue and ask them not to solve the problem, but ask questions until the root cause is identified. Once you find the root cause, then they can offer suggestions on how to approach the issue. This may take some time, but fully understanding the issue can save time in the long run. Besides, other perspectives can really be helpful.

Not all issues or problems require this extra effort. For those situations that seem to recur or when you feel like you are addressing something different with the same person over and over, stop and consider the idea that you may need to find the real issue and address that once and for all.