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Partnering for Problem-Solving

When you need someone to take action on a problem, isn’t your instinct to tell them exactly what to do so you have the best chance of getting the outcome you want?

Three recent scenarios got me thinking about effective ways to resolve problems and insure a good outcome:

  1. Friends who were angry at how a school had treated their child — and them by extension — asked for advice on whom to involve in the administration and the best way to get an improved outcome.
  2. An employer, deeply dissatisfied with a crucial aspect of an employee’s performance, wanted help creating a significant shift in both attitude and execution.
  3. A senior executive asked me to train employee groups in the skills of greeting and welcoming, including coming up with a motto they could all refer to.

In each case, the folks who consulted with me wanted me to help them clarify and explain their requirements to the people they were dealing with so that those people could modify their behavior to do exactly what my contacts wanted — the way they wanted it.

The difficulty is that if the people involved were directed to behave a certain way or else incur some potential risk, which is how we handle many performance and behavior issues — in other words, performing to spec under threat — that instead of gaining the best possible outcome — in these cases, the right class placement, improved performance, and a happier customer population, respectively — the most likely outcome could be a narrow interpretation of the specified requirements and a grudging, resentful, possibly even malicious compliance.

When you demand change without leaving any room for interpretation, personal style, or diverse real-life conditions and complications, you’re likely to get this response: “You just tell me what to do and how you want it done.”

That can be said passively — as in “Save me! Save me! I can’t figure it out and I’m afraid!“ — or passive-aggressively — as in “Yeah, sure; you tell me exactly what to do, and then if there’s a problem it’ll be your responsibility, not mine!” Neither of these responses indicates employee engagement or the likelihood of long-term success.

If you’re feeling dissatisfied by current conditions — whatever they are — it can be hard to expand your view to focus on multiple alternatives and sort out the best options. The mind tends to go immediately toward a solution, a single-set response that happens to look good right now — and to insist on that.

The real point is that it’s shortsighted and usually ineffective to dictate exactly how others must behave. People won’t give you their best thinking if they’re only following orders. Although you may need to provide some specific direction, try to keep it in the context of the big picture: What you’re trying to accomplish, the high-priority goals, the preferred outcomes.

You may have to model behavior or give specific instructions on how to do something because your requirements have never been explained, are outside a person’s experience, or are simply beyond their capacity to figure out. You might have to coach someone step by step, and provide reassurance. But even an explicit show-and-tell session and/or detailed instructions should only serve as a jumping-off point to help employees figure out their best way.

So before demanding change, carefully consider: What is your real goal beyond the mere cessation of an annoyance? What are your most crucial requirements? Are there any boundaries for what is and isn’t acceptable?

Partnering to work out a plan and incorporating the best of what each partner knows and wants — and then leaving the execution to the one who is responsible for it — is likely to create a better outcome, and less resentment. And if the solution doesn’t work, partnering makes it a lot easier to identify whether the people in question are unable or unwilling to accomplish the desired result.

It’s usually self-defeating to specify exactly how others should behave, particularly if they’re experienced professionals. If you can’t pull yourself back from that desperate urge to dictate, go right ahead, but don’t expect any thinking or growth beyond what you yourself can sustain.

Onward and upward,


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