Effectively Responding To Problems Strengthens You As A Leader

Woman Executive Pondering Her Problem Solutions

My father set an insane example for how to effectively respond to problems in life.

For starters, he had no scale.  Every setback, minor or major, instantly upended him.  He became visibly and vocally upset whenever he hit a bad golf shot, needed a pair of pliers and couldn’t find them, or when I came home with less than stellar grades.

The expressions “flew off the handle” “gone mad” and “hit the roof” were coined by my siblings to describe his reaction to the smallest of life’s delays, interruptions and obstacles.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, I went into the workforce and leadership very poorly prepared to deal with problems that inevitably surfaced.

My father’s irrationality influenced me to feel embarrassed when problems occurred and drove me to find the quickest (and not necessarily the best) possible resolutions.  I’d been unwittingly conditioned to seek perfection at all times and to take difficulties personally – as if they were all a reflection on me and on my abilities.

Gratefully, it wasn’t long before I realized I’d been badly mentored.

Seeing me anguish over some minor, but to me a seemingly monumental issue, a thoughtful manager told me directly:  “It’s a complete fantasy to believe you won’t have problems from time-to-time.  Most importantly, the leaders who make the best of their challenges are the ones who rise to the top.”

This guidance both relieved me and inspired me.  I understood that I wasn’t on the hook for every problem that came my way.  But I also became motivated to learn more effective ways of responding to the snags, hitches, and complications I would inevitably face.

Through personal experience, and by modeling the performance of other leaders I admired, I came to see that there are five essential steps to problem resolution in the workplace.  Follow this unique process to distinguish yourself as a truly intelligent, mature and thoughtful leader: 

1.     Don’t Exaggerate The Problem 

Always keep your problems in perspective and be sure to avoid feeling or behaving like a victim. The best leaders understand that setbacks are a natural part of life and quickly step up to resolve them.  The best guidance I ever received: “Cool heads prevail.”

2.     Research All Possible Solutions

Rather than hide your troubles, open up to others, especially peers, to see if anyone’s ever faced a similar problem.  There are many benefits to doing this.  You’ll surface more options to consider and likely will see the problem from a different perspective.  And by asking others, you’ll display your own humanity and self-confidence, two key characteristics of highly effective and mature leaders.   Your intention is to be extremely thorough in defining potential solutions and open to creative alternatives.  This is also the time to determine if this problem creates opportunities for you to tackle an even bigger problem.  Is this new problem a gift?

3.     Keep Constituencies Informed

Another of my earliest bosses taught me the word “prodrome” which means advance notice.  Knowing that problems occur, and sometimes snowball, this manager insisted upon hearing about the “potential” of a problem before it ever became one.   If I thought there might be a snag in a project we were working on, he wanted to know immediately.  This was brilliant on his part – he could begin thinking about solutions long before he needed one – and taught me to give all my future bosses the same kind of advance warning.  No one likes to be caught by surprises.

Equally important is keeping your own team informed of your problem resolution process and timeline.  Anyone who might be affected by your decision needs to be kept in the loop without delay.  And telling colleagues that you’ve identified an issue, and are weighing options, actually buys you valuable time.  It takes pressure off.  If you want to build solid credibility with your team, solicit their ideas on what you should do.  Even if you take a different course, they’ll appreciate you for including them.

4.     Carefully Weigh Your Options

Once you have alternatives to consider, play each of them out in your mind.  Consider how key people might respond and think through all the downsides. Then, once you have the solution in mind, sleep on it.  In the morning, if your mind and heart both say “good-to-go,” you’ve done your best work.

5.     Take Action

Always remember: leaders who fail to take prompt action on problems don’t survive.  Once you’ve made your decision, take the time to be thorough in explaining how you arrived at it.   Tell your team all the things you considered and weighed.  Your transparency will not only build trust, it will inherently minimize any resistance to its implementation. People have a much easier time understanding what you want to do if they know why you want to do it.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.