Look at Difficulties as Opportunities

Innovation and creativity flourish when people challenge one another within good working relationships. But in the short run, even positive interactions among people can be stressful. When you face challenges with people, keep in mind that in every adversity is the seed of an equal or greater benefit. Whether you call them problems, challenges, difficulties, or differences, it is in working through these interpersonal issues that you, your organization, and your team members may be forced to better understand one another. You recognize previously overlooked strengths, abilities, and insights each person has to offer. You will also find that in resolving these difficulties, you can find the greatest opportunities to grow.

Some problems with people are preventable, but due to differences among people — perceptions, cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and more — some difficulties simply cannot be avoided. You and your team members may not agree on everything, but when you can agree on the overall goals, sometimes how you get there is not so important. By measuring results, not necessarily activity, you can continue to monitor progress and take corrective action when needed, yet at the same time, set an example of tolerating differences in the way people approach their work. A productive, effective organization can usually accommodate individual differences among team members when you, as manager, have clearly defined the overall goals and requirements of your organization. Rather than being a source of conflict, differences can be transformed into a wellspring of team creativity.

An Ounce of Prevention

Most serious complaints from people in an organization stem from the lack of clear understanding and communication between employees and management. Because you represent the authority of management, you are in the position of being the first person in the organization who can either prevent the occurrence of complaints or resolve the underlying causes. As a leader, one of your vital responsibilities is to take positive action in handling and, just as important, preventing problems with people.

When team members complain, they are usually concerned about some aspect of the work situation: work environment, wages, incentive pay, layoffs, performance reviews, training requirements, transfers, or actions of other team members. Complaints arise from any factor that affects satisfaction on the job and that an individual, acting alone, cannot remedy.

Complaints do not always imply that team members are ineffective or negative. For example, an employee may report that lighting over the work area is inadequate. If you view that person as looking for something to excuse poor job performance, you may forget that poor lighting is a major contributor to eye fatigue and errors. The fair approach is to investigate the possibility that the lighting does need attention.

Specific job descriptions and routine performance evaluations can help to minimize the number of complaints that come to you. They empower people to act and to solve some problems for themselves. The more people know what they are expected to do, the more likely they are to take personal responsibility to solve problems rather than blame others or the organization itself. Also, when people have a clear idea of how their most recent past performance measures up, they know the action steps they can personally take to improve the situation. When problems truly are beyond an individual’s control and the complaints come to you, you can keep problems from escalating into serious disruptions by dealing fairly and consistently with the people involved.

Attitudes for Problem Prevention

Since your responsibilities involve making decisions, maintaining productivity, and interpreting organizational policy, you may occasionally experience a wave of unpopularity. If you view these occasional disagreements as part of your position rather than as personal attacks, you maintain professional, positive relationships with team members and enjoy personal satisfaction from doing your job well.

Controlling your emotions is easier when you remind yourself that you personally are not usually the cause of a team member’s anger. An angry employee is usually upset with an organizational decision, policy, or rule you are required to carry out. You are simply doing your job. Remember that because of your position it is your function to protect the interests of the organization — not to protect yourself from personal dislike. Adopting this rational attitude helps you to think and act in a calm, professional manner without adding the fuel of your own emotions to an already explosive situation. Reacting emotionally to complaints may intensify and prolong the negative situation.

In discussing a complaint with a team member, even if emotions like anger or frustration come to the surface, limit your discussion to the issues and behaviors causing the problem. To keep from becoming defensive when presenting your point of view, use “I” messages. “You” messages often come across as accusing and judgmental. For example, instead of saying, “You need to answer memos more promptly,” it is more effective to state, “I cannot make necessary decisions when you do not respond to memos promptly.” Or instead of, “You are not providing effective leadership for your team,” you might say, “I often see your team members idle when they do not know what you want.”

These “I” messages, as opposed to “you” messages, allow you to point out how an issue affects you, or they explain why the issue is important without attacking the person. When communicating about problems, also avoid judgmental words like should, could, ought, if only, and but. The word but negates whatever the other person is saying, and it conveys to the other person that you are not listening with an open mind.

Addressing problems promptly, rather than procrastinating, is also crucial. One large, nationally-known firm reduced the number of written grievances by 95 percent by implementing a concentrated effort to solve problems where they occurred, at the time they occurred. Promptness in solving problems lowers the production cost of goods and services, improves an organization’s competitive position, and enhances customer satisfaction.

Team leaders who adopt a pattern of consistent, positive attitudes and behaviors reduce the confusion and frustration that often give rise to complaints among team members. Here are a few practical guidelines:

  • Treat all employees fairly — that is, make sure all team members receive the positive or negative consequences their performance merits. Being fair with employees does not mean always treating people equally. People who make an outstanding contribution deserve extra rewards and recognition. Enforcing rules is the only area in which every employee must be treated equally.
  • Learn to say exactly what you mean. Don’t expect team members to guess or to read your mind. Demonstrating what you want or giving verbal examples can be essential in training and communicating effectively.
  • Deal with specific behavior — not just attitudes. Identify the specific behavior you want team members to develop, train for that behavior, and reinforce it with positive feedback.
  • When you receive two different stories about a situation, get the two people together and ask them to tell you.
  • Coach for improvement. Describe behavior you want, not what you do not want.
  • When you give instructions, expect team members to follow them.

Prevention is the most productive strategy to handle problems with people; but no matter how successful you are in establishing good relationships with your team members, you will occasionally face differences of opinion and other unavoidable interpersonal issues. Understanding why people act as they do helps you solve those problems more quickly and effectively.

Leadership Management® Institute
Reprinted with permission
Strategic Essentials is a Managing Partner for Leadership Management® International, Inc.

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