For most of us, having a problem is not pleasant. It would seem to me that the word’s very definitions make it clear why: a solution is doubtful, it’s difficult and it can cause unpleasantness and worry.
Late Middle English (originally denoting a riddle or a question for academic discussion): from Old French probleme, via Latin from Greek problēma.
1. A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome
2. A thing that is difficult to achieve or accomplish
3. A source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
No one wants to have a problem, and we avoid it at all costs, but when we can’t avoid it, we don’t actually recognize that we have one. We postpone the necessary conversations, the meeting with the logistics team is delayed, the email we need to send to ask for a change in response times never leaves the inbox…or we do have the conversation but don’t actually say what needs to be said. Who knows what the logistics team understood? The email that CC’d the whole office wasn’t clear and now, to make matters worse, there are complaints. Sound familiar?
Having a problem requires an ability to recognize that something is not working – with my team or me. It requires clarity in my communication with others so that my position/request/solution is clear. I must be able to listen to another person (and really listen, not just wait for my turn to rebut) so that we can reach an agreement and a solution together.
Most of us have these skills to some degree, but business and team leaders frequently evade problems as often (and as professionally) as possible.
We tend to be non-confrontational because there is an absence of trust in our own environment – we don’t trust that the other person will listen, we don’t trust that they won’t seek revenge, we don’t trust them to be sincere, we don’t trust that we won’t be sidelined or scapegoated, we don’t trust that we won’t be seen as negative, the pessimist, the one with the bad news. This lack of trust costs businesses millions of pesos, hours or rework, jobs, resignations, new hires and a long list of etcetera’s. How much do you trust your team?
Not trusting in another person impedes confrontation, limits exposure of conflict and blocks the search for a solution. It creates false harmony, harbors gossip. We know that there is an elephant in the room, we can all smell it, see it, the elephant mistreats us all and, though no one wants to admit it, we all feed it. We give it food, water and care for it. How big is the elephant in your office?
Hernández, the general director of the Nocommunication Company, is worried about the decline of sales in his organization and has asked his directors and key employees into a meeting to analyze the situation. In this meeting, Hernández speaks, expresses his concerns and asks all those present to do what is necessary to solve the problem and improve sales numbers. At the end of the session, Hernández leaves with a feeling of having done his duty to push his colleagues towards a solution and thinks that everyone will be raring to do so.
A month later nothing has happened. Figures are still declining.
So Hernández now changes his strategy. He doesn’t speak to his directors, he makes decisions. He increases incentives to salespeople, requests changes in client service processes and asks for a loan to reinforce finances that have been pressured by low sales.
Another month later and everything is the same…or worse. There is low morale and dangerous symptoms appear: two very capable employees quit, the rumor mill is spinning around possible layoffs and a feeling of internal inequity, and there is a very real heaviness to the office.
Hernández, now angry and worried, calls for an emergency meeting, literally scolding his executive team for not achieving positive results, and demands that everyone place all their energy and commitment into regaining prior sales levels. At the end of the meeting, it is clear to all the directors that once again, NOTHING will happen.
Does the organization have a problem?
If it does, it is due to:
- Someone saying something wrong, explaining it incorrectly or having it misinterpreted.
- Someone not speaking up, keeping silent, being afraid to talk or ask for something.
- Someone is afraid to let others express themselves and does not allow for it.
Company employees frequently fall into any of these three categories, including in relationships with clients, suppliers or third parties.
In this case, is it possible that (1), he has not explained himself thoroughly, or (2), his people don’t feel comfortable speaking up out of fear? And in the latter case, this would mean that there’s not enough information to find the source of the problem. Or is it (3), where there is no forum for self expression because the leadership is afraid to hear what is really going on or is afraid of losing authority.
And this leads us to a series of good questions for leaders of any team:
- How can you ensure clarity and that your team members do not misinterpret you?
- What do you do so that your team members feel comfortable speaking up, whether it’s to propose something that differs from your point of view or let you know you’re in the wrong?
- Are you afraid you’ll lose authority by letting others express themselves? And if so, what can you do to get over that fear?
This case methodology, used as best practice in the development of leaders and executives at the Harvard Business School and the Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección (IPADE) in Mexico, always identifies communication as the common denominator in all organizational problems. Regardless of whether those problems are financial, commercial, production-oriented, caused by error, lack of technical knowledge, bad attitudes, or even natural problems, one or more communication problems are present, like those in this case study.
Do you have problems in your area or business? Check for communication problems.
Is the competition beating you? They probably communicate better.
Colleagues won’t listen to you? Perhaps you’re not listening to them or you’re not letting them express themselves.
Your boss doesn’t understand you? It’s possible that there have been may statements on both sides that have never been discussed or that you haven’t expressed.
Open, honest, direct conversations will help you find a solution.