Shutting down the problem factory

Come to Crazy Ernie’s Discount Problem Emporium of Total Workplace Madness! Need mountains from mole hills? We’ll custom build on your lot or ours! How about random reasons why something can’t be done? We’ve got dumpsterfuls—for immediate delivery! Looking for Blame? We ship blame to anyone anywhere anytime! Pyrotechnics? We invented Blowing Your Top! And don’t forget to ask about our weekly specials on Excuses—poor, run-of-the-mill, custom, good, or ironclad—we’ve got them all!

I have a friend who’s held quite a few jobs in his career. Each new position starts off with such promise! His supervisors appreciate what he has to offer and respect his opinions. He’s all smiles: everything is finally going his way. But soon, and inevitably, his grin becomes forced as he is slighted in some way. His job responsibilities change. His boss no longer pays him the same amount of attention. Perhaps another person is hired and he wasn’t promoted. His grin grows into a growl as he gripes about the stuff he’s got to do. He becomes highly suspicious of others’ motives. He begins blaming other people for real and perceived wrongs. Soon he’s looking for a new job where things will be different—next time!

Or how about the guy who always seems to be in the middle of any conflict with his coworkers? I once supervised a master conflict generator as a (short-term) employee. No, it’s not his fault, he declares. It’s never his fault. He was trying to help! He can’t help it if the other person… (fill in the blank)!

Such nuisances not only attract problems, they’re carriers—who spread the contagion wherever they go! The truly expert ones become Problem Makers. They become so proficient, they could go into business!

Problem is, they’re here, there, and everywhere. And no matter what profession, they’re the reason customer service, work quality, and reputation can suffer, goals get thwarted, and good employees either descend to their level or bolt to a new company. And since I don’t want to catch what they’ve got, how do I shut down their insidious operation?

Before shooting from the hip (or lip, as the case may be) let me first look inward. As the leader, my charge is influencing people for purposeful results. And because people are my most valuable resource, it’s certainly worth a little more investment on my part to convert problem makers into problem solvers than to clear the bench and send them all to the showers. Here are three people-oriented approaches:

1. Resolve. What can I do to improve the working relationship with the problem maker or in the circumstances surrounding the problem itself? What incentives can I offer that will work—like respite, respect, resources or rewards?

2. Relate. Am I communicating—verbally and demonstrably—in a way that is clearly understood by the problem maker? Even the most eloquent speech is useless to those who cannot comprehend it.

3. Reason. Have I adequately explained the rationale or the purpose? What goes without saying to me may not to others. When my daughter was young, she required full disclosure from me on exactly how and why I wanted her to do a certain outdoor chore. Otherwise, it was “stupid!” and she found no reason to cooperate.

While honing my influence with the problematic person, I must also manage the problem issue itself. Here are three problem-oriented finishes:

1. De-escalate. While not all problems are solvable, arguments require arguers. Separate or remove them from the immediate conflagration, and you’ve reduced the intensity of the issue and introduced opportunity for reasonable resolutions.

2. Dissolve. With applied wisdom, understanding, resources, cooperation and patience, many problems can be obliterated with ready remedies, creative custom fixes, or dissolved into non-issues.

3. Destroy. Eradicate the problem by eliminating its sources. Like quenching a fire by removing heat, oxygen, or fuel, eliminate the causative combustibles of the problem, and it will likewise cease to exist.

MasterPoint: People-oriented leadership can convert problem makers into problem solvers.