Solve workplace problems with a positive approach

When things go wrong, or potentially wrong, managers and supervisors tend to be critical and look for scapegoats. They don’t think about future solutions for problems.

I was involved in this type of situation a couple of times myself when I was Corporate Affairs Manager at Western Power – fortunately as a beneficiary in the following case:

When Operations had messed up their operational(!) response to a hurricane, they managed to divert attention by blaming my predecessor for negative media attention during the storm – so he was pushed out and I replaced him when they recruited for his position. I was very pleased to be offered the job ahead of 65 other applicants, but discovered over time it was somewhat of a poisoned chalice. However, that’s another story.

Fear of the blame game drives many people. But fear isn’t healthy in the long run. Being positive in dealings with others in the workplace, especially with direct reports, is a win:win situation for everyone.

McKinsey consultants in a 2014 article, “Lead at your best,” suggest one way to be positive is through changing your focus. For instance, in problem-solving. You can use this approach in almost any review situation, whether you are dealing with direct reports or with peers.

Problem focus

Try this in an activity with one of your colleagues to discuss their most pressing work problem with you. At first, focus on these types of investigative questions:

  • What’s the problem?
  • What are the core reasons?
  • Who is to blame?
  • What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
  • Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?

Solution focus

Then pause and restart the process using these questions instead:

  • If you were in charge of this type of activity in future, what would you like to see (and make) happen to improve the outcome?
  • Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible? What are some small steps you could take that would start improving the situation?
  • What are you learning in this conversation so far?

After a few minutes into this discussion, pause again and ask your colleague about their thoughts and feelings in the two discussions. What was their response? What were feelings? What were yours?

The difference is clear. The first set of questions, which focus on solving technical problems, often prompts defensive responses. The second set instead leads people to say they feel more positive, motivated and engaged.

The regrettable thing is the first approach is used more often. These problem-focused questions work well for technical issues that have ‘right’ answers. But problems usually become more complex as they become more important. On the other hand, when a solution-focused approach is used, people feel empowered and motivated. Remember that employees with problems already feel fear. Problem-focused questions only fuel the fear.

Start with the problems and move on to the solutions

Extend this further: you can use both approaches for even more effective results. You can start with problem-focused questions and then move on to solution-focused alternatives.

The lesson is simple: look for problems and you’ll find them; look for solutions and people will offer them. By choosing questions thoughtfully, you can shift mindsets to a more positive track.

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