Workplace Wisdom

6 Ways Not to Put a Problem on the Table

Let’s say you’ve identified a problem in your organization — something that’s not working well or isn’t working at all, something that you know should be fixed or changed. And let’s say you’ve already analyzed all the costs that the organization will incur if the problem continues, and what the benefits will be if you can eliminate it.

You really care about making the situation better, so you plan to raise this issue with the group of people who have the knowledge and understanding as well as the authority, the involvement, and the skin in the game to do something about it.

But these folks are also likely to have feelings about the situation. So how do you describe the problem without leveling accusations, ascribing fault, or laying blame? And how can you create a supportive environment around the problem so that the crucial people can hear and accept what you’re saying, incorporate your input into their worldview, and move forward to make changes or present alternative, realistic views of the situation?

Errors That Should Be Omissions

Here are some things to keep in mind when presenting the problem:

  1. Do not talk about the people who have caused or perpetuated the problem and what’s wrong with them.
  2. Do not talk about the rank stupidity of the situation and how mind-boggling it is that it has been permitted to continue.
  3. Do not question anyone’s commitment, intent, or capability.
  4. Do not make insulting statements about people “deserving what they get” as a way of responding to others’ dissatisfaction.
  5. Do not claim to represent all your colleagues who have ever complained about the same problem, or to be the only one brave enough to bring this issue to everyone’s attention.
  6. In addition, do not pretend that you know all the answers or have never been at fault. (And if you think that you do have all the answers or that you’ve never been at fault, you are already making a big mistake, so go back and review your facts.)

Instead, Be Part of the Solution

We all want to feel that we are relatively safe in, and have some control over, whatever our circumstances happen to be. If you’re making any of the errors listed above, you’ve effectively announced that you don’t believe your listeners have control over their circumstances, or that if they once had control, they’ve messed it up. This will make them feel unsafe — and you’ll have created exactly the conditions that undercut good listening (a big safety requirement) or sound, thoughtful thinking (a big requirement for a sense of personal control and efficacy).

So stay neutral and calm in your communications and concentrate on process and structural causes.

Focus on identifying the problem instead of whose behavior, conduct, speech, or attitude contributed to it.

Explain the impacts of the problem and sketch out what outcomes would be more desirable than the current ones. If you can, connect the dots to specific unnecessary costs or the undermining of the mission in ways that allow everyone to see the impacts.

Point out the limitations in structure, process, and procedures.

Ask the big questions: What other impacts are there? What are the gaps between current conditions and desired outcomes? What are the levers that could create the change necessary to reach the desired outcomes?

Here are some more detailed factors you could share:

  • The particulars of the situation — who, what, when, where, how, and how much — without focusing on the why, because the meanings are likely to be different for different people;
  • The cost, timing, frequency, duration, and number of cases or incidents;
  • The opportunities of low-hanging fruit vs. opportunities of greatest impact;
  • The possible future impacts of the situation if it continues as is, and how any of the other factors may play out;
  • The potential impacts of individual action vs. systemic change and the pros and cons of each;
  • Any additional risks or exposures that could occur vs. the benefits of relief or improvement.

It’s crucial to encourage your audience to participate in sharing new facts, contribute to assessments of loss or gain, and brainstorm alternatives. Their involvement shifts the situation from one in which you’re dumping a messy problem on the table for everyone to clean up, to one in which you’ve placed a puzzle on the table so you can all work on it together.

Onward and upward,
LK

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